Santa spreads Christmas cheer and receives so much more
The strands of Lorena Knox’s long blonde hair blend in with the white, bushy beard as she disappears into Santa's massive red coat and warm embrace.
In his husky yet honeyed voice, Santa Claus asks her what she would like for Christmas.
“I would like a $50 gift card to Walmart so I can buy my mom something,” says the 9-year-old girl from Quincy, near Bellefontaine. “I got everything I need.”
Santa removes his wire-rim glasses and wipes his brown eyes. He quickly composes himself as the line of children grows at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.
Another little girl soon takes up residence on Santa's lap and points to her pregnant mom.
“I don’t need anything Santa, because I am hoping to get a baby brother for Christmas,” said 7-year-old Morgan Melchi. (That baby brother, Evan Lee Melchi, was born about two weeks later in Springfield.)
Eleven-year-old Kaitlyn White climbs onto Santa’s lap and simply hands him her two-page note written in red marker.
“All I really wanted for Christmas for six years is to go on a sleigh ride to the North Pole,” it reads. “But that never happened and I was upset. Now all I want is to get my mom a ring and I don’t have any money.”
Kaitlyn, who lives in Marysville, tells Santa her mom deserves to have something pretty.
Santa again has to take a little break in what is just the first hour of his first appearance of the holiday season. Over the next six weeks, Richard Knapp would interact with thousands of children and adults throughout central Ohio as he traveled to schools, nursing homes, private parties, homeless shelters and other places. Almost everyone he sees calls him The Real Santa.
Most children ask for baby dolls, dinosaurs, robot dogs, video games, bicycles, skate boards, princess dresses, drones, baseball gloves and cellphones. (Santa tells all that his toy factory doesn’t make cellphones.)
But at almost every stop, he encountered selfless acts of compassion. There are those who wish for something other than a toy or material gift for themselves. The children, and some adults, inspire Santa almost as much as he ignites their spirit.
It’s been this way since the labor union boss, now 67, retired and became a full-time Santa in 2005. There was the child who asked for a new daddy because she lost her father in a war. The little girl who didn’t want a present because being cancer free by age 8 was enough. The 4-year-old girl who was mute, and drew Santa hundreds of pictures of unicorns so he could use them to decorate his workshop at the North Pole.
Knapp played Santa one time for his children in 1973, but he decided to be The Real Santa in 2004, after he ordered a cheap suit and played the role for his grandchildren. The father of four, grandfather of a dozen and great grandfather of two now has made more than 1,400 appearances as Old St. Nick.
Some of those visits are with Mrs. Claus — Judy, his wife of 48 years. They lived near Pataskala for about 25 years until Knapp bought his childhood home and moved back to Ravenna, Michigan, in 2015. He stays with one of his daughters in Pataskala while making his Santa rounds in central Ohio.
The beard is real. He makes sure it stays white by dying it every six weeks. The $2,200 wool red suit, trimmed in white and gold, is immaculate. Everything about this 6-foot-4, 330-pound Santa is genuine. The voice soothes, and nothing is rehearsed before an appearance. He possesses an uncanny, quick-witted response to almost every question or comment from a child.
“The power of being Santa is something that overwhelms every time I put on that red suit,” Knapp said. “But it’s nothing compared to the power I see in so many people. Anyone doubting whether there is good in the world should come along with me.”
Some of them can't remember the names of their family members, but they all recognize Santa.
A group of 19 people surround Santa and Mrs. Claus in a hallway at the Parkside Village Assisted Living Center in Westerville. One by one, they work their way up for some Christmas cheer.
“Ho, Ho, Ho,” says Janie Meyers, 90, as she approaches.
“Hey, that’s my line,” Santa replies.
Meyers tells Santa that she would love to have a trip to the beauty shop, and for someone to sneak her in a bottle of Chardonnay.
Vada Schwendau, 92, doesn’t waste time and moves in quickly to give Santa a kiss on the cheek.
“I see a sparkle in your eyes, Veda, but careful — Mrs. Claus is sitting right here,” Santa says.
Others ask Santa for just one ice-cold beer, lots of snow and tug on his beard to see if it’s real.
Santa dances with one woman, sings jingle bells to a man and manages to get another woman up on his lap, who also sneaks a kiss.
Then he asks 96-year old Jack Hayes what he would like for Christmas.
“Well,” Jack says, “I’d like to have my wife back.”
A nurse breaks the tense silence. “Jack, are you sure she would want you back?”
Everyone laughs, and a smile stretches across Jack’s face.
Santa leans in to Jack and whispers, “Your wife will always be with you.”
As he walks from one part of the memory care center to the other, Santa pauses. These encounters have reminded him of the years his mom battled Alzheimer’s disease. Tears roll into his white beard.
“That one got me. It’s tough to look into all those eyes,” Santa says. “But they showed you are never too old to believe.”
Santa is outnumbered 30 to 1 by the children in the Powell living room of Dr. Ryan Squier and his wife Amy. And they aren’t in the mood for candy canes or stories.
They want answers. From Santa.
Santa is used to a few questions from children, but this feels more like a presidential press conference. Their hands shoot up en masse.
What is your diet?
“I like chocolate chip cookies best.”
Where are your reindeer?
“Some are at the North Pole and some are at the Columbus Zoo.”
Will you ever change jobs?
“I never allow the elves to vote me out on anything, so I’ll be in the office forever.”
How old are you?
“Two days older than my teeth.”
No, really Santa, how old are you?
How do you know if we have been good or bad?
“Santa sees all.”
The questions continue for another five minutes and Santa, who almost has sweated through his red suit, ends by handing out his magic reindeer dust.
Then one of the children reminds Santa why his visit to the Squier home is special.
“Don’t forget the presents for the other kids Santa,” the little boy says.
For the third straight year, the Squiers and about 80 of their family members and friends spent thousands on toys for Santa to take with him to a shelter for the homeless and for others who might need them.
Santa disappears into the dark night with three bags of toys.
“It’s all about the kids and magic of Christmas,” Ryan Squier says. “And no one has that magic like that guy.”
Ho Ho Ho
Rayce West's eyes widen when Santa walks into his second-grade classroom with pizza and tells everyone he is there to see Rayce on his birthday.
The 8-year-old at Licking Heights South Elementary School, east of Columbus, was born with mixed receptive-expressive disorder, causing him to slur his words and stutter.
He has been bullied, especially on the school bus by older kids, who make fun of the way he talks.
Santa knows exactly how Rayce feels. When he was 8, older boys on the playground once stuffed sand in his mouth. He would later get them back in high school when he used his wicked fast ball to strike them out on the baseball field.
But Santa didn’t want Rayce to wait that long to feel better and accepted the invitation from Rayce’s grandmother, Feliza Jones, to visit his class.
“What you don’t want to do is ever make fun of other children just because they are a little different,” Santa tells the 23 students.
The students raise their hands and repeat Santa’s pledge: “I promise to be the very best I can be and always strive to be on Santa and Mama’s and Daddy’s and teacher’s good list.”
Racey sits in silence until Santa says his goodbyes.
The brown-eyed little boy with the buzz cut belts out “Ho, Ho, Ho” and softly waves to Santa.
“I’ve never seen him look that happy,” his grandma says.
Serving up joy
Santa digs the large metal spoon into the green beans and drops a scoop next to the turkey and stuffing on the homeless man’s plate. The man shuffling through the line with a bag of clothes over his shoulder finally realizes who his server was.
“Oh my God, it is Santa,” the man says while laughing so hard he spills a little gravy. “You are the best thing I’ve seen in a long time.”
Santa takes time to greet almost every one of the 325 people in the cramped gym at the Broad Street United Methodist Church, in Downtown Columbus, which The Open Shelter is using for its Christmas meal for the homeless and other disadvantaged families.
Santa is no stranger to tough times. His dad, a policeman; and mom, a factory worker, provided a good home, but there were years when he and his five siblings ate government cheese and didn’t find much under the Christmas tree.
He finally makes it into a private room where he meets with about 60 parents and their children.
The first three children greet him with a dance. They do their own versions of the Floss, and twist their bodies in directions that produce a belly laugh from Santa.
“You got it going on, don’t you?,” Santa says before the kids walk over with his elves and pick out gifts that were made possible by the Squiers and other families.
The kids ask for puppies and play dough, trucks and video games, baby dolls and footballs and, yes, more cellphones.
Amanda Riley watches her four children choose their gifts and fights back tears. She raises them alone, deals with their health problems and lives on a government assistance check. The shelter helps her with food and clothing and gave her some extra presents so there would be something for her kids to open this Christmas morning.
Her tears are not born from the challenges that lie ahead, but from the man in the red coat whom her children are hugging.
“He makes them feel so happy,” she said. “Santa gives us all hope.”