The real man behind Santa’s magic
Some holiday traditions never die off. The red jolly old Saint Nick with the big beard, and yes, sometimes the big belly, is one of them.
Santa Claus has a long history steeped and woven into Christmas traditions with families for centuries. Today, he is thought of mainly as the jolly man in red with a deep “Ho, Ho, Ho,” blurted out who brings toys to good girls and boys on Christmas Eve.
Chances are if you’ve seen Santa Claus spreading a little holiday magic around Owatonna and the surrounding areas before, during and even after Christmas, it’s Al Martin of Owatonna taking up the role.
Martin just settled down within the past week for a long winter’s nap after dozens of performances as Santa over the past month. He got started on Dec. 5 with the Holiday Train, Lighted Parade and tree lighting ceremony in Central Park in downtown Owatonna and went pretty much non-stop until the Saturday after Christmas.
Santa has been making magic for area children and others for “30 plus” years as Martin described it. What makes this Santa perhaps more authentic than many others is the fact that Martin supports a natural bushy white beard. He said he’s kept his beard for about 20 years. “I haven’t trimmed it for a couple years,” he confessed to this writer.
Martin has had more than a few tugs on his beard over the years as Santa Claus. He said parents will often encourage their kids to “pull on the beard to see if it’s the real Santa.” Martin takes it all in stride as part of his Santa gig. “The ones that pull the hardest are the babies,” he noted.
Even during the summer months when Martin is out and about, people will often comment about his beard and make references that he must be Santa without even knowing the truth. “I go along with it,” he says. “I make the kids happy all year around because of my beard.”
In the early years, Martin refrained from heading out on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day because he had small children of his own to spend time with at home. But now that they are grown, Martin heads out both on Eve and Day to light a twinkle in the eyes of area children.
Prior to the actual holiday when he travels to private homes with a sack full of gifts, Martin entertains at company holiday parties, organization events and community festivals. “I enjoy the larger families,” said Martin, who operated a retail sporting goods store in Owatonna for many years.
One of Santa’s favorite stops before Christmas this year was Roosevelt School in Owatonna. They even brought in a calf to portray Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. One of the kids he got to mingle with was only four days old. “That’s the youngest I’ve ever had since I’ve being doing this,” Martin said.
During another stop this year, Santa was asked to greet a disabled woman in a van. “I don’t think she could speak, but she could sure smile and held my hand,” he said.
At one company party this year, the organizers commented that Martin would definitely be asked back again because “the kids mingled with him a lot better” than other Santas they’ve utilized in the past.
Asked what he enjoys most about being Santa, Martin quickly said, “The kids. I’ve always been a kid person.”
This year’s popular item on Christmas lists was phones. But Santa still gets lots of requests for the traditional favorites, including Barbies, Nerf stuff and Play Stations. And sometimes what kids ask for stretches even Santa beyond his limits. “There are a few kids out there that want peace and health for their families,” he said.
Martin recalls the first time he played Santa that he borrowed another suit. “It was kind of tight on me, but we made it work,” he said. His wife, Cathy, eventually made him a suit. “She is good at sewing,” Santa said of Mrs. Santa.
As Santa makes his rounds, kids load him up with notes, pictures, ornaments, handmade items and yes, a few goodies as well. They often ask him what his favorite cookie is. When asked by this writer what his favorite is, Santa replied with a hearty laugh, “Look at me, all of them.”
Martin owns a few rental properties in Owatonna. Each holiday he will visit the families in those homes because he knows many of them are less fortunate and don’t have much money.
When asked how long he plans to keep the holiday tradition of Santa alive, Martin said, “As long as I can walk.”
And just what makes a good Santa?
“Just being jolly,” Martin laughed. He said he feels jolly most of the time even when he’s not portraying Santa. “I keep thinking it’s all for the kids,” he said.
With the holidays behind, folks will be able to find Martin operating the ice skating rink at Morehouse Park in Owatonna.
But rest assured, Santa will be in hot pursuit of making kids happy again next Christmas.