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Greta Rybus

Greta Rybus is a photojournalist and photo editor living in Portland. She started her blog, “Who I Met," as a way to begin juicy conversations with interesting people she meets. The blog has migrated with her from Montana, Europe, and, finally, to her new and dearly-loved home in Maine. You can see more of her work at www.gretarybus.com

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Who I Met with Greta Rybus
Posted: December 23, 2013

Dave Banks- Santa

 

When I first saw Dave, he was fixing the Christmas lights outside of his home in Wells. Dressed in green shirt and red suspenders, he turned to wave as I pulled into his driveway, and I thought, “It’s Santa!” Meeting Santa Dave makes you feel like a kid again; he embodies the good will, optimism, and joy of Christmas.
Like Santa, Dave is full of magic. He has a red bag filled with jingle bells, a Santa hat, various props, and a blow drier and grooming products for his beard. It’s how he becomes Santa, although after over 25 years of being Mr. Claus, the spirit of Santa never leaves him. Even his laugh sounds like “Ho, ho, ho.”  

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! Hear Santa Dave wish you a Merry Christmas.

 

 

TELL ME ABOUT HOW YOU BECAME SANTA.

I was working for Verizon and I used to have a very short, white beard. We worked in an office atmosphere. And for a couple days before Christmas they would have a party for all the folks in the office, and people would bring their children and we’d have games. And they asked me one day if I’d play Santa and they rented me a suit! And I thought, “Wow, this is fun!” It was really what got me started.  I lived in a small town all my life in Massachusetts. And there was a gentleman there who played Santa for years and years, and the gentleman died. And so the next step was when the town came and asked if I’d be their Santa. So I started being their Santa.  Over the internet, I found a group for Santas that no longer exists. The group grew to be pretty big and they decided they ought to have a convention. And we did! We went out to Branson, Missouri and over 300 Santas showed up. And it was like an epiphany. I showed up in a typical rental suit, with the black things you put over your shoes to make them look like boots. I was a Santa, but these gentlemen were Santas. They took it to the next level. My wife Kathy had come with me, and Kathy is a seamstress. She took pictures, pictures, pictures. And we came back and she made me a beautiful suit that I still wear. That started it all. I’ve been Santa for 25 years. I turned gray by the time I was 30 and white by the time I was 50.

 

YOU A MEMBER OF REGIONAL AND NATIONAL SANTA ORGANIZATIONS THE INTERNATIONAL ORDER OF REAL-BEARDED SANTAS.  ARE THERE POLITICS THAT GO ALONG WITH THAT?

Oh, there always are. Some of these Santas take this very seriously. I just want to be Santa and be with children. I could care less about the politics. It’s just about having a child sit on my lap and you get that look like, “Wow, this is Santa Claus. He is real!” That’s the most wonderful feeling in the world. The span of that child’s belief is so short and I get to be that one to bring that home to them, to make it real.

 

WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED ABOUT CHILDREN BY BEING SANTA?

Probably that children are amazingly resilient. I’ve seen it through being Santa at the hospitals. Children will sit on my lap and tell me some really sad things. It’s a funny thing, to them Santa is always a good thing and a person that can talk to. They will tell me that mom and dad are fighting or things like that. They are so amazingly resilient. When I was in the Shriners Hospital, there were children there with horrific burn scars but it’s like the burns didn’t even exist, they were just happy to be with Santa.

 

TELL ME MORE ABOUT THE EXPERIENCE OF WORKING WITH KIDS IN A HOSPITAL. IS IT DIFFERENT THAN WORKING WITH OTHER KIDS?

It isn’t an awful lot different. Children are children. I do home visits, I do corporate visits, I go to hospitals, I did a TV show. I’ve had a lot of experiences. And children are all the same, no matter where you go. When you walk in the room and you have a beard like this ­–you are a real-bearded Santa– and you say “ho-ho-ho”, the children are all the same: they want to tell you what they want for Christmas and that’s what it is about. The hard part about children in the hospital is getting beyond what has happened to them. I belong to a group of Santas that works with children who are terminally ill. That’s the toughest. I had a little girl who was terminally ill with brain cancer, and she didn’t live past a few weeks after I visited her. With children like I see at Shriners, at some point they are going to get back to normal because they do incredible things at that hospital. But with this little girl, I just knew that she wasn’t going to make it to Christmas. And she didn’t make it past Thanksgiving. But your role as a Santa is to make that last moment really special for them. You blot out all of those feelings from your mind, because you are Santa for that child while you are there.

 

WHAT IS IT LIKE WHEN YOU ARE WITH CHILDREN WHO ARE STARTING TO LOSE THEIR BELIEF IN SANTA?

In 25 years, I’ve had about every question that could be asked of me! With the older children, you have to be a little more honest with them. But I still have eleven-year-old children who still think maybe Santa is real. You have to be a bit more honest and say things like, “Well, maybe I can’t get down all the chimneys, but I do have these magic keys that get me in the front door.” Or, if they ask about how I get all the toys in my sleigh, I might say, “You are a pretty smart little boy and you are eleven years old and you are right. I don’t fit all the toys for all the children in my sleigh. What we really do is we start before Christmas, and we have locations where we keep the toys stored so when I get to start position, there is a new bag with new toys in it, and away we go.” You have to twist the truth a little, but if you keep it close to reality, they’ll believe it. But at that age, nine or ten or eleven… by the time they are at twelve they aren’t believing much anymore. It’s not sad, really, it’s part of growing up. We can always have fun. I never worry about it at all.

 

ARE YOU EVER SANTA WITH YOUR OWN FAMILY?

My wife Kathy and have four children, and we have five grandchildren. Three boys and two girls. It’s an ironic thing, all the grandchildren were probably in my arms for a picture during their first year, but never past that. Because their parents were always so afraid they’d recognize me, and they would! So they go see another Santa. The boys are all teenagers now, and when they got older we take pictures together. One of them, Gracie, is starting to ask, “Are you sure you aren’t Santa, Grampy? You look like him!” And Annie hasn’t started to connect the dots yet.

 

HAVE THERE BEEN CHILDREN WHOSE STORIES HAVE STUCK WITH YOU?

A few of them. It must be human nature, but the ones that stick with me are the sad ones. I have so many happy ones, but they don’t seem to stay with your mind as much. The little girl who died of brain cancer, it was sad enough that she died, but the saddest thing is that she was a twin. He brother had no problems, and she lay dying. I was at Children’s Hospital recently and there was a little boy there who had lost his leg and he wanted his leg back. So we had a long talk about how Santa has a lot of power but we can’t get it back. I had a little boy recently at a party for the Army National Guard and a young boy who was at least ten years old, and he asked that his daddy come home. So I was thinking that he must be deployed, but he said, “No, he left me when I was 18 months old.” Like that boy, or the boy who lost his leg, I have to say, “Santa can do a lot of magic, but he doesn’t have power to solve everything. You have good doctors and nurses who love you as much as Santa does. You are a strong little boy, and you will be just as normal as any other child. You will be alright, son.” The little boy with his father was tougher; he just wanted to see his dad. I’d say, “I can’t bring your father back, but you need to move on and make your life something. If it’s meant to be, you’ll see you your father again. But you have to keep going.” The number one thing about Santa Claus is you can’t ever promise something you can’t deliver.

 

KIDS ARE ASKING YOU FOR TOYS, BUT YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT THEY WILL GET ONE CHRISTMAS MORNING. HOW DO YOU NAVIGATE LOGISTICS LIKE THAT?

Never say, “Okay! I’ll get that for you.” You can say things like, “Oh that’s a nice present!” or “I like those toys” or “I’ll put that on the top of the list.” Course, now you have kids asking for electronics. They’ll ask for an iPhone or an iPad. And my standard reply is, “I can give you a phone, no problem at all. But you’ve got to understand, I’ve got to talk to mom and dad because they have to pay for the charges, and do they think you are responsible enough for it? If mom and dad say it’s okay….” And you do the same thing with pets. Kids are always saying, I want a puppy or I want a kitty. And I always tell the children that pets don’t travel well in the sleigh and that I might get a puppy that I would like but it may not be the color or the size that you wanted. And puppies and kitties are big responsibilities, so I’ll have to talk to mom and dad. The best thing for you to do is to go pick out the puppy that you would want with mom and dad. And that’s how you get around those sort of things.

 

WHEN YOU WERE LITTLE, WHAT DID YOU WANT FOR CHRISTMAS?

Oh, I wanted a big truck. I can remember my uncle gave me a pick truck that you could push around, and it was my favorite toy for years.

 

WHAT IS IT LIKE BECOMING SANTA? IS IT ALWAYS IN YOU, OR DOES IT HAPPEN THE MOMENT YOU PUT A SUIT ON?

Well, I have a card that I carry with me to give to the children. It’s not unusual to be at a restaurant or on a walk at the beach and feel a tug on my sleeve and hear, “Are you Santa?” For a professional Santa, we are Santa 365 days a year. If a child sees me as Santa, I am Santa. And it drives my wife crazy because we’ll be going someplace and a child will recognize me and I will stop and talk to them.

 

WHAT IS MOST IMPORTANT TO YOU?

Right now, at my age, it’s probably my family. I mean, just being with my family. Knock on wood, with the exception of my poor mother-in-law who is ill, my family is strong and healthy and doing well.

 

TELL ME ABOUT A LESSON YOU HAVE LEARNED IN YOUR LIFE OR ARE LEARNING NOW.

I’ve learned that you need to listen to everybody. Prejudice against somebody, it just doesn’t work. You could say, “He’s dumb, I’m not going to listen to him.” But sometimes that person has a little bit of knowledge that is just what you are looking for. Over the years, I found that you can waste a lot of energy hating someone. But it’s a lesson! You learn something out of it and move on.

 

WHAT’S THE BEST MOMENT OF AN AVERAGE DAY?

Kathy and I get up together and have breakfast together every morning. And from there, the day can go where it goes, but we always start the day together.

 

WHAT IS YOUR GREATEST STRUGGLE?

This is my second marriage. The divorce of my first marriage was really difficult, very difficult for me. I obviously survived it and met Kathy and are happily married again.

 

WHAT IS YOUR GREATEST GIFT?

The gift is really being Santa. Nothing has made me happier than being Santa. The Lord blessed me with snow-white hair. And I say that because so many Santas are not naturally white. They bleach their hair. We go to seminars and one of the main topics is how to take care of your beard. I’m so fortunate that I look like this all the time. I decided that this is what I wanted to do, and I’m having a ball doing it.

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