SAN­TAS’ SE­CRETS

HERE’S WHAT IT TAKES TO ROCK THE RED SUIT

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - LIFE&TRAVEL - By Mike Klinga­man

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 San­tade­sign 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-and­white 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?

“Half of him,” Ral­ston said.

What did the dog ask for?

“To get down.”

That wish, Santa gladly granted.

Kevin Mur­phy of El­li­cott City dresses up as Santa Claus an­nu­ally for the Howard County Po­lice Foun­da­tion’s party for dis­ad­van­taged chil­dren.

KEN­NETH K. LAM/BAL­TI­MORE SUN PHO­TOS

Car­man Peltzer plays Santa Claus at events and usu­ally ar­rives in his “red nosed” Mus­tang with the li­cense plate “MYRDSLD.”

KARL MERTON FER­RON/BAL­TI­MORE SUN PHO­TOS

Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus (played by Craig Ral­ston and Kath­leen “Kat” Ral­ston) with the cus­tom-built sleigh at Howard County Vol­un­teer Fire De­part­ment Sta­tion 8.

Vol­un­teer Charles Davis, dressed as Santa Claus, stands in front of a fire en­gine at Clarksvill­e Vol­un­teer Fire De­part­ment.

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