It’s good to be Santa
-Rich Epp, AKA: Santa Claus
Some children want to grow up to be firefighters or doctors or police officers or teachers.
Not Rich Epp.
He told his mother as a young lad that he wanted to be Santa when he grew up. And his mother reminded him 20-plus years ago that his wish had come true. He is Santa, a professional Santa whose business card say he’s for rent. He’s also a mobile Santa with car license plates that read Rudolph.
He returns annually to what he calls the scene of the crime, the Owatonna Arts Center, for the cocoa and cookies with Santa event. This year it will be from 10 to noon on Saturday, Dec. 10.
Twenty-seven years ago, he and Lonna Lysne were at an event at the Arts Center, when Silvan Durben, artistic director, approached him and asked, “how tall are you?” Rich said he was 6-feet, 6-inches or so, and Silvan said that was great because any one wearing the Father Christmas coat had to be at least that tall and asked if Rich would wear it and be Santa for another event.
“I only had a mustache then and my hair was more blond than white, but that’s how it started,” he said. It wasn’t the first time he had been Santa but that other appearance was at a sock hop at his school when he was a junior, 6-feet, 7-inches and 150 pounds.
“I was a thespian and the director asked me to be Santa,” he said, saying that he was unsure about since he was tall and very thin. The director transformed him. “Even my girlfriend didn’t know who Santa was.”
Ten years after the first wearing of the Father Christmas coat, Rich was again at the Arts Center when someone approached him about being Santa at her home.
“She said she would pay me $50 so I said I would. I ended up going to the neighbors as well, ending up with $185, a large can of Poppycock and two pounds of chocolate. I thought it would be a good thing to do in retirement,” he said.
Lonna talked her friend Teddy Brown into making a costume. The prototype costume was amended the next year to include pockets and a zipper. The transformation into Santa starts in August when he lets his beard grow. In the fall, he wears a red beret and red shirts, some plaid, and maybe a vest.
“Little kids see me and believe I am Santa,” he said. Lonna calls this stage, the off-duty Santa stage. The experiences are endearing. During the season, Santa has a Santa watch that helps to engage the children when they are nervous. He also has genuine sleigh bells on his bag and always has candy canes. His ho-ho-ho is robust.
“The magic of believing is important,” he said in an interview. “I’ve always been a believer. It’s good to believe in Santa Claus,” he said.
“Marketing in our culture has certainly influenced the wish list,” said Santa. “I had a 3 year old tell me that she wanted a certain $2,000 computer and that she had copied the serial number so I would get the right one.
“I asked her if she could count. No, she said. I asked if she could read. No, she said. So then I suggested that she might really enjoy something that the elves had made, like Legos. She said that would be great,” he said.
Cell phones are often requested and Santa pays attention to the cues of the adults who are with the child. He also tries to manage expectations when children reel off 40 or more things on their list, telling them that he can only bring so many things on the sleigh and that there are many children.
Over the years, Santa has visited with a wide age range, from babies to 90 year olds in care centers and nursing homes. Covid curtailed many stops, however. Santa is seeing children who are children of earlier days. He works solo, except at the Arts Center, when Mrs. Santa (Lonna) accompanies him and entertains on the piano.
“It’s good to be Santa,” said Santa. “And it’s fun to hang out with Santa,” said Mrs. Santa.