It was a homework assignment that I will never forget. Sometimes in life what you think is a disaster turns out to be a true blessing. I began playing Santa at the age of four years old in Havana, Illinois. I continued that family tradition all the way into high school in Watseka, Illinois to my freshman year. That year, at the age of 14, I became the local Chamber of Commerce Santa and started to appear in parades and at Santa’s House in downtown Watseka. It was fun, enjoyable, and something I really like to do, even at such a young age.
During my junior year in high school, my English teacher assigned a thesis paper to our class on what we wanted to do for a career after we graduate. Well, I had been playing Santa for the chamber for a few seasons and I thought…why not just be Santa as a career. I had heard of one man who had done this. So it could be done…right?
A few years earlier I had seen a newspaper article on a man from southern Indiana that was the year-round Santa at Santa Claus Land theme park in Santa Claus, Indiana. His name was Jim Yellig. Yellig had been at Santa Claus Land since its inception in 1946. Santa was his job, but most importantly it was his vocation. He did not play Santa, he was Santa.
The English assignment required that I do research on my “dream” career and so the first thing I did was hit the library and research Jim Yellig. I found out a lot about this man...a WW I veteran, an American Legion Post Commander, and a career Santa Claus. I gathered as much information on Yellig that I could find, but it was not enough. So I decided to write him a letter about how to be a year-round Santa Claus.
It felt kind of strange, being a 16 year old junior in high school, writing a letter to the Santa Claus of Santa Claus, Indiana, but I did it anyway. I asked in my letter for advice on how to make Santa a career, what education was needed, and if there was any special requirements. I told him a little bit about my background as a young Santa and that I was doing a paper on a career that I wanted to pursue. I addressed it to Santa Claus and mailed it to Santa Claus, Indiana.
I went about the business of writing the paper for class, half thinking how silly it was to bother a professional Santa with my pipe dream. I really didn’t think that Jim would reply. Well I could have not been more wrong.
I came home from school one afternoon to find an envelope addressed to me lying on the kitchen table. As I picked it up, I noticed it was from Santa Claus Land. I had just gotten a letter from Santa.
I took the letter into my bedroom and opened it very cautiously, not knowing what the contents might be. The envelope contained a handwritten letter from Jim Yellig and a book called, “It’s Fun to be a Real Santa!” I very carefully read the letter.
Thank you for your letter dated the 10th of April. Your request is one that I am not sure Santa can fill, but he will try. First of all you have to have the love of Christmas and children in your heart. You must understand this as without it you are just wearing a red suit. Be dedicated to the magic that Santa holds for a child, understand the religious meaning of Christmas, and be kind to the elderly as they are your children also.
Get as much general education as you can, study, study, and more study. Then ask the Good Lord for guidance as he will know what path he will lead you. Please let me know how your paper turns out.
Santa Jim Yellig, the Ho-Ho-Ho of Santa Claus, Indiana.”
The letter and the book inspired me. Santa had written me back. I showed the letter to my parents who thought that the message and tone of Jim’s letter was very honest and motivating. They also stated that I better get busy on the paper as it was due in a few days.
I wrote the paper with a sense of excitement that I had never had before. I carefully crafted each paragraph and cited my references. When I was finished, I had the paper typed by my Dad’s secretary to make sure all punctuations and grammar was correct. I then turned the paper in to my English teacher.
About a week passed and finally in English class the paper was retuned to me. I opened the red folder that incased the manuscript with great anticipation. I looked at the teacher's remarks. I got a “D” with a comment added, “An unattainable goal.”
I was heart broken. At least she could do was encourage me a bit or maybe say that Santa could be a hobby, not a profession. But she didn’t. As requested, I wrote Jim another letter to let him know how the paper turned out.
It was about a week later that Jim replied back and he was a little surprised at the mark I received. “Don’t let one person’s opinion discourage you from any of your dreams.” he stated. And he gave me even more encouragement.
I continued to play Santa during the rest of my high school days and college days. Jim and I would correspond letters and phone calls back and forth over the years. I even traveled to Santa Claus, Indiana to meet him and talk to him in person on occasion. He always encourage me, giving me sound advice along the way. Jim became my mentor even though he may have not fully realized it. He was also my friend. Jim Yellig passed away in 1984 at the age of 90. I was 22 years old at the time.
Well, I did become a true year-round Santa in 1985 when I was hired by Instant Photo Corporation of America. And the rest as they say is history.
I will never forget Jim Yellig’s kindness and his advice. I will never forget our conversations and I will never forget what I like to call Jim Yellig’s three “Rs” of being Santa.
“To be a great Santa you have to do the research, rehearse the part, and lean how to render the role. You have to become Santa, not play him.” That’s what Jim Yellig taught me.
Jim gave me a gift I can never repay… and he helped me get a “D” on my English paper along the way.
Thanks Jim for being a great inspiration.