Niko Krommydas interviewed Santa Claus at the North Pole—or was it the North Fork? He can't remember; they consumed too many cans of Reinbeer, Santa's favorite brew, that snowy evening.
[Niko's Note: This is my conversation with Warren Barnett, a genial white-bearded gentleman who has been "Santa Clausing" across Long Island for the last 20-plus years. He rarely charges a fee to appear as Santa, he told me. "And if I do, I donate the money to a local charity or hospital. I tell everyone, I play Santa for the kids. I try to visit the same houses, try to remember the names. If they believe Santa is real, it keeps their childhood alive for that much longer. That can make a difference later on."]
When did you start playing Santa Claus?
I started dressing up about 20 years ago, just for my kids. I'd get changed quickly in the garage and run to the backyard to jingle my bells. Word got out that I was playing him and my neighbors started asking if I could deliver gifts to their kids. I loved it right away. Soon I was going to every house in the neighborhood. You could say it really snowballed.
How long have you had that beard?
I've had a big beard since high school. Luckily it didn't go gray as I got older; it went to a nice, beautiful white.
What's the craziest thing you've been asked for?
What's the craziest thing you've been asked for? A boy asked me for a Corvette one year. He was probably 10 years old. I thought, How could I weasel my way out of this one?
What's your favorite memory since you've started Clausing?
Playing Santa at the Nassau University Medical Center is always the most rewarding experience. It made my heart glow to visit the kids there, most of them terminally ill, to see them smile and lose themselves temporarily. I'll never forget this one time I was in a store—it was in the middle of the summer—and a sweet little girl came up to me. She asked, "Excuse me, but aren't you Santa Claus?" I remembered she had been at the hospital the previous year and turns out she had gotten better. I went down on one knee, put my finger to my mouth and said, "Sssh. It's me, but don't tell anyone." Her mom was almost in tears.
Do you get "recognized" a lot?
It happens a lot: cruises, stores, restaurants... and any month of the year. If I'm in Aruba in July, kids are asking me for pictures so they can say they were vacationing with Santa. It's all great. I remember I was eating at Applebee's one night, regular clothes and all, and the manager came up to me and said, "You know, you look just like Santa." I ended up being Santa at that Applebee's for two years.
Do you remember meeting Santa as a child?
When I was a kid, going to see Santa meant a trip to Gertz department store in the old Mid Island Plaza shopping center. I remember, I'd get there really excited to talk to him. But before that could happen, the picture was snapped and you'd be taken off his lap in a flash. In my opinion that's how a lot of the mall Santas are now; they sit in one spot for the photo, they don't really try to interact and get to know the kids. The children need more than that. That's why I never considered being a mall Santa. I wanted to be a visiting Santa, going to people's homes. I really wanted the kids to feel like we were friends.
Are you playing Santa this Christmas?
Definitely. I retired this April and my wife and I moved off Long Island to Pine Bush, it's in Orange County. But I'm still coming back this Christmas, I've gotten so many requests in the last few months to play Santa. My grandchildren live on the island. They're still too young to know Santa, but I want to be there on Christmas morning as their grandfather.