By Kristine Gill
What does Santa Claus have in common with Howard Huffman?
A lot, if you ask the Hubbard resident. Huffman, 64, has been a representative of the bearded bearer of gifts for a little more than a year.
“I’ve always had this thing about Santa Claus,” Huffman said.
Before he was recruited to work for Santa Claus himself, Huffman worked at Delphi Packard Electric Systems and used to let his beard grow each winter. He wore a red shirt and hat when he went shopping around the Christmas season.
“It was just absolutely amazing how these little kids would follow me around,” he said.
While in Pittsburgh one day, Huffman noticed a young girl peering at him from behind clothing racks. She followed him to each store he stopped at. Finally, her mother approached Huffman.
“She said, ‘You have no idea how excited my daughter is. She confirmed there’s a Santa. She saw him shopping,’” Huffman recalled.
Last year, Santa called on Huffman to bring Christmas to a local family in need. So Huffman loaded his pick-up truck with gifts donated by friends and headed to the family’s house on Christmas Eve where he gave them to the five children.
“That had to be one of the best Christmas Eves I’ve ever had,” Huffman said.
Huffman has collected Santa Claus figurines and dolls for the past 20 years and says his fascination with the man stems from difficult times as a child.
“My father was in construction, and so every winter he was laid off,” Huffman said. “There were some really sparse Christmases.”
His collection includes a fisherman Santa, Scottish Santas and Santas dressed in fur.
When Huffman was asked to be a representative, he was given permission to mimic the Victorian-style Santa that predates the iconic red suit and full beard Americans identify the season with.
“I didn’t want to be a traditional Santa,” Huffman said.
His own costume was made by a friend and includes burgundy-colored velvet, big buttons and speckled fur trim. He’s getting a forest green suit next.
“Kids really like the burgundy with this Santa outfit,” Huffman said. “It’s soothing to them.”
Instead of reindeer, which are reserved for Santa, Huffman uses his Honda
Goldwing motorcycle to deliver toys.
“It’s like a La-Z-Boy with a six-cylinder engine,” he said. “It’s my sleigh away from sleighs.”
He’s still working on his Santa laugh.
“I don’t get into this ‘ho-ho-ho,’” he said. “How do you do ‘ho-ho-ho?’ I have a fairly decent laugh when I get going.”
On Saturday, when Huffman visited the Salem Airport, a girl named Sally hopped on his lap to say hello.
“I asked her what she wanted and she said, ‘Well you got the letter,’” Huffman said.
That’s when communication with representatives and the big man up North can get tricky.
“I told her one of the elves probably read it,” Huffman said.
The real Santa will be at Southern Park Mall and a few other locations through Christmas Eve greeting children and sending them off with candy canes and keepsake photos. He sits in a green wingback chair and welcomes the scared, excited, children and adults.
“I had an 87-year-old woman sit on my lap last week,” Santa said. “She checked to make sure the beard was growing on by itself.”
The oldest visitor Santa has had was 97. The youngest was a baby born just the day before.
Santa said kids regularly bring him gifts including the traditional milk and cookies.
“I love my cookies,” Santa said. “The best paycheck in the world is milk and cookies.”
Both Huffman and Santa say that kids these days still ask for Barbie dolls and race cars.
“Everything is remote control,” Huffman said. “They still ask for the pink Corvette and the Barbie house.”
“One boy asked me for a puppy Saturday, but the father was looking at me, so I just told him I’d see,” Huffman said.
One of the more surprising, but common questions Santa hears has nothing to do with tangible gifts.
“It’s not really all that weird, but it happens really frequently,” Santa said. “Boys and girls young and old ... they wish to have a very merry Christmas with their family and for peace on Earth.”