BURRILLVILLE – From their twinkling eyes to their ‘merry’ dimples, three men in the Martin family make a natural fit for a certain jolly old elf, and you’ll find them at locations across the state, bringing Christmas joy to the masses.
For Thom, Scott and George Martin, becoming Santa Claus is a family affair, and one that comes with its own rewards.
“Everybody who portrays Santa does it in a different way, but it’s about being kind, and being nice, and making children happy,” said Scott, who at age 43, is by far the youngest of the three. “You’re better than a superhero to most kids.”
The tradition began with Scott’s uncle, Santa George, who has been filling the role since he appeared as Kris Kringle for family members in 1969 at the age of 16, in a suit purchased at Sears for $19.
“You don’t have to be fantastic for the kids to believe,” said George. “They didn’t recognize me. After that first time, I was hooked.”
Santa Scott came a bit more reluctantly to the role, at the urging of his relative.
“My uncle had bugged me for years and years, but someone in their early 30s doesn’t have a lot of interest in being Santa,” said Scott.
He finally gave in at age 36, and met his now wife Nicole in June of that same year, adding a new element of uncertainty to the budding relationship.
“She watched the transformation,” said Scott. “She was like. ‘oh my, what did I start dating?’ She embraced it when she realized how cool it was.”
In 2013, Scott’s dad, “Santa Thom,” suited up.
“My motivation was the challenge of doing it and doing it properly,” Thom told NRI NOW. “Plus, I regularly step outside of my comfort zone. It keeps life interesting.”
There’s no denying that right now, the Martin family of Santas are some of the best in New England, appearing at the region’s premiere Christmas events, from the Polar Express train ride in Woonsocket, to Santa’s Wonderland at Bass Pro Shops in Foxborough, Mass. George is in the Christmas commercials for Cardi’s Furniture, and Thom is among the Saint Nicks who will appear at Southwick Zoo’s new Winter Wonderland event this year.
George has also appeared on The Rhode Show around seven times, and is Santa at several events with the Gloria Gemma Breast Cancer Research Foundation, where he changes the white fur on his robe to pink. Scott even had the chance to ice skate with kids as Santa at a Christmas event at Gillette Stadium.
Their popularity is no accident. Preparation for the Martins begins months in advance, or in George’s case, is a full-time lifestyle. The North Smithfield resident says he “went pro” as Mr. Claus some 20 years ago.
“I had been doing community theatre, and I grew my beard out to audition for Miracle on 34th Street,” George said. “I liked the way it looked.”
George went to a hairdresser to strip the color from his beard, getting it to the proper snowy white only after several visits. Eventually, he started doing it on his own, and he now keeps the beard stripped of color year-round.
“I got myself a Sally’s card,” he said with a chuckle of the beauty supply store.
The task is even more arduous for Scott.
“Everyone thinks it’s a super easy thing,” said Scott, a Harrisville resident. “Unlike my uncle and my dad, my beard isn’t naturally light, so when I grow it out, I look like a homeless person for four months.”
In the weeks leading up to Christmas, Scott has to bleach his beard once a week to stop black hairs from showing, leaving his face itchy throughout the holiday season. He said his Santa transformation is so different from his normal look that when he launched a career in real estate two years ago, he decided to take some time off.
He hopes to dust off his red suit for appearances again next year.
Thom also adjusts his appearance, starting to grow his beard in June, and his hair in October. A week before he begins working as Santa, he said he bleaches both white.
“I normally shave my head and have a goatee,” said Thom.
“It burns and it smells horrible,” he added. “I usually have to do the process three times to get to white.”
For George, being Saint Nicholas is a year round gig, and his wardrobe not only includes plenty of custom boots, hats, and customary red robes, but also no less than three red zoot suits, plus Hawaiian shirts for summer.
“I get recognized all year round, even if I’m not in red,” he said.
There’s also mental preparation involved in the holiday transformation. For Scott and George, who are naturally outgoing, matching Santa’s jolly demeanor comes somewhat easily. But Thom is typically more reserved.
“I value my privacy and solitude, but work was slow, and my son and brother assured me that I’d be great at it,” he said of first delving into the role.
Thom, who lives in Pascoag, says his first year in a red suit, “wasn’t anything to write home about,” describing his own demeanor as “wooden and awkward.”
His son Scott says he noticed a major change after his father made an appearance at a Bass Pro Shop “Sensitive Santa” event for autistic kids at the May Institute. Organizers turn down lights for the event, and aim to keep things calm.
“All of a sudden, something snapped for him,” said Scott. “I think that was a turning point for him. Now he’s awesome.”
“I found that rewarding,” Thom said of the event. “The best experiences I’ve had is when you win a scared or shy kid over and they interact, and are really willing to take a picture with Santa. That’s some cool stuff right there.”
George does several events annually working with kids with special needs, and also does hospice visits with Santa America. He describes one incident where he visited a 7-year-old blind girl who was non-verbal and could barely move, or lift her head. Santa George held the young girl, and rocked her, then let out a, “Ho! Ho! Ho!”
“She started laughing,” he said. “The more I did it, the more she would laugh.”
When he stopped making noise, the normally quiet young lady became vocal, bringing onlooking family members and nurses to tears. When the girl died soon after, George went to the service, and brought a bell from the Polar Express. He was asked to be a pallbearer, and her mother put the bell in casket.
“Carrying that casket, I swear i could hear that bell inside,” he said.
“It’s tough but it’s also rewarding,” George added. “I like to give back. They’re all my children.”
For the Martins, it seems, becoming Santa each year means getting continually better at spreading just that type of holiday warmth.
“My demeanor and routine definitely has evolved over the years,” said Thom. “I’ve been getting progressively better because I actively endeavor to be better.”
“You just keep improving,” said George.
Thom says that he often gives the children a short lecture about the importance of listening to their parents.
“Doing as their parents ask, I tell them, teaches them skills that they will need as adults – paying attention to details, following directions, organization, etc.– and that their ‘folks’ want them to be the best version of the person that they can be. So, there is an element of love to their requests,” said Thom.
“I talk to them as a caring grandfather would. Usually, after the lecture, the moms hug me and the dads shake my hand. I find that I enjoy the challenge of making people laugh and helping them relax a bit, while remaining, in a way, anonymous,” Thom said.
“The season can be stressful,” he added. I’ve come to the realization that, to be a good Santa, this has to be more of a calling than an acting job. I think so, anyway.”
Editor’s note: Publisher Sandy Seoane is the cousin of Thom and Scott Martin.