The children’s father, a Howard County firefighter, had been killed that summer in the line of duty. So last Christmas, Craig Ralston, of Ellicott City, donned the Santa Claus suit he has worn for years and rode to the family’s home. He doled out gifts, hugged the kids and played with them as their mother watched.
“You know, Santa loves you,” Ralston told the youngsters. And their mom?
“I’m told it was the first time she’d smiled since [her husband’s death]," he said.
For a few precious moments, Santa had filled the holes in their hearts. The power he has to lift one’s spirits is not something to be taken lightly, say those who play the part each year.
“The first time I put on this costume [23 years ago], I felt like something between a rock star and a superhero,” said Kevin Murphy, of Ellicott City. “You’re seen as omnipotent, all-knowing and, for the most part, loved by everyone.”
Wearing the outfit changes his mindset too, Murphy said:
“I think I’m less cynical as Santa because people see the good in him, and they’re so sincere that you want to live up to the reputation that hundreds of years have perpetuated about Saint Nick. It’s very special to play this role and fulfill the need to have a benevolent character in peoples’ lives.”
Murphy, 61, who heads an insurance agency in Mount Airy, has volunteered to play Santa for churches, schools and, most recently, the Howard County Police Foundation, which holds an annual holiday party for 100 disadvantaged children.
“It’s not always ‘things’ that they want,” he said. “They’ll say, ‘I just want my mom to get better,’ or, ‘I’d like my parents to get back together.’ Last year, one child told me that she liked her teachers so much, she wanted me to ‘please make Christmas special for them.’ Kids can be very giving.”
Murphy’s first appearance as Santa, for the Ellicott City Volunteer Fire Department, was a wild one.
“I got on the pumper truck, in costume, to visit a subdivision when we get a call for a fire in town,” he said. “The driver said, ‘Hang on, Santa’ — I hadn’t even belted in — and we flew off, lights on and sirens blaring." Happily, it was a false alarm.
Through the years, Murphy has learned there are tricks to playing Saint Nick.
"Never promise anything because you don’t know mom and dad’s financial situation. When it comes to pets, I say, ‘Taking care of a living creature is a big responsibility. I’ll discuss it with your parents,' " he said. "And do your homework. I read store mailers to know what kids mean when they say, ‘I want 'x' video game or 'y' doll. It gives you credibility. For instance, the movie ‘Frozen 2’ is out now. I won’t see it — I’d rather have my eyeballs stabbed by cocktail forks — but I’ll watch the trailers so I can say, ‘Did you see the part where so-and-so did this?’ Or ‘You look just like the princess.’ "
Older kids can pose a challenge, Murphy said:
"By fifth grade, it’s totally uncool to talk to Santa, so I’ll say, ‘Hey, do you think the Golden State Warriors will win it all this year? That’s one of Santa’s favorite teams.’ "
Nor is he stumped when handed an infant.
“It’s usually a photo op,” Murphy said. “I tell the parents, ‘Congratulations, what a gift you got this year. Santa can’t beat that.’ ”
Now 77, Carman Peltzer began playing Santa in 2004. Is the Mount Airy resident making up for lost time? Year-round, he wears red shirts and pants with Santa-design suspenders. He drives a red Ford Mustang with the license plate MYRDSLD. Come December, Peltzer — who has a real white beard — puts faux antlers on the car’s windows and a red nose (a cloth ball) on the grille.
“I’m Santa 24/7, 365 days a year,” he said. “I love seeing peoples’ reactions when they drive past me, then slow down and take pictures.”
He carries a pocketful of coins that read, I got caught being good, and hands them out to anyone he meets.
“I’m a kid at heart,” said Peltzer, who spent 20 years in the military and did two tours in Vietnam. This month, he’ll strut his stuff at St. Michael Catholic Church in Mount Airy, Cattail Creek Country Club in Glenwood and The Lighthouse senior living facility in Ellicott City, among others. About half of his appearances are for pay.
“I’ll do this as long as the Lord allows,” he said. “I have heart problems, and this takes my mind off it, lifts my spirits and keeps me going, seeing the happiness you can bring to children.”
On Dec. 14, one day before his 81st birthday, Charles Davis will drive from his home in Glen Arm to the Clarksville Volunteer Fire Department, wriggle into his red-and-white suit and, for the 20th year, bounce kids on what’s left of his knees in a “Pizza With Santa” celebration. Never mind the tomato stains; they blend right in.
“Being Santa isn’t difficult at all; you just need to be pleasant and smile,” said Davis, part of the department’s Underwater Rescue and Recovery team. “I’m a bit hard of hearing, which is a problem. And I had a minor stroke last year. But I do look the part.”
Why volunteer to keep playing Santa at such a Santa-like age?
“Payback,” said Davis, a retired attorney. “Life has been good to me.”
That’s a perspective not lost on most Santas, said Ralston, 61, an Ellicott City firefighter. He has donned his costume, gratis, since 2005 and traveled local roads in a hand-carved sleigh on wheels pulled by an SUV. His suit was one of those made for actor Tim Allen in “The Santa Clause." Ralston bought it on eBay.
What sticks with him are the heartfelt wishes of underprivileged kids, “like those who ask for food. Or the girl who wanted a sewing machine so she could help her mom make money," he said. For 18 days and nights, he winds through neighborhoods armed with a list of special-needs children whom he greets by name at every stop.
“There have been times when the temperature was zero, or 40 mile-an-hour winds, but you hunker down and make the best of it,” Ralston said. The sled has a heated seat and both Santa and Mrs. Claus (Ralston’s wife, Kat) wear heated vests and gloves so “it’s bearable."
To hone the image, Ralston has attended three Santa schools and conventions in Tennessee, Missouri and Pennsylvania. He can sign “Merry Christmas” for children at the Maryland School for the Deaf in Columbia. And, come December, he takes extra vitamins to stay healthy amid kids who sit on his lap and promptly sneeze.
“I do this to give back to the community,” he said. “It seems like we’re losing all the happiness out there; something in our society is missing. When Santa rides down the street with the sirens blaring, you look over at the houses and see ‘the peekers.’ Curtains rustle, heads stick out, they see Santa and start waving frantically. Adults become children again.”
Some folks hold block parties, with hot chocolate and cookies, if they know Santa is nigh, Ralston said: “People say that’s how they’ve become neighborhoods again.”
And everyone has to clamber onto the sleigh — even pets, including a Great Dane. Did he sit on Santa’s lap?