Quintessential America

Looking into the Heart of a Child

There is a Santa Claus, and he lives in Barrington’s backyard




The existence of Santa Claus is stipulated.

No argument. He exists. Let’s get that question settled.

The job requirements are massive, unique, and seemingly eternal—except for January and February. What happens to Santa in January and February?

“I rest,” he says.

Santa actually said that, and to be accurate, this was not someone functioning as a theoretical amalgam of St. Nick.

This was him. The actual beloved him, and we know this because the 100,000 or American men (and a few women) who professionally don the red suit and white hair acknowledge there is one real, original, defined Santa.

The crown has been set gently on his head. He’s not playing Santa. He is Santa. There is only one at a time.

A few miles from Barrington

He’s camped permanently in East Dundee, Ill. He telephoned to say hello. He goes to work every day at the 40-acre Santa’s Village complex at Illinois highways 25 and 72.

Of course, he teaches aspiring Santas the art of Santadom all over the country. If there is a major holiday parade within 300 miles of Dundee, he’s likely riding the last float.

His other name, the one his Illinois parents gave him, is Phillip Wenz.

He has a wife. He has a 28-year-old daughter named Holly. That name was not accidental. His son-in-law is named Nicholas. A coincidence.

Some people think they can “play” Santa for malls, charities, and civic soirees. That’s not Phillip Wenz.

On more than 200 mornings of the year, he arises at 4 a.m. to begin the process of transmogrifying himself from the rather normal-looking 53-year-old man with a slightly receding hairline. The full white hair and beard must be carefully glued, boots must be polished; there can be no fleck of dust or dirt on the red cloth.

There is nothing cheaply executed in this. He has hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in wardrobe and thousands more in wigs and beards designed to tight artistic standards. There can be no mistakes, no gaps in the persona.

By 10 a.m., he walks from the makeup antechambers to take his seat in Santa’s Village where his business operation sits. Then the children come to see him.

He re-creates his life every day for them.

You can see the most real Santa Claus in the world every day. It’s the only job he’s had for 30 years.

Of course, anyone with the proper uniform can claim to be St. Nicholas of Myra, the saint on whom the manifestation of childhood innocence and generosity is based.

But Wenz has proof of his identity. He has credentials.

A modern Santa

But we leap ahead of ourselves. Best to start 150 years ago. The modern American Santa has many cultural antecedents, but the one you know is from Coca-Cola ads and Christmas. His image was drawn by political satirist Thomas Nast first, but then permanently refined by Haddon Hubbard “Sunny” Sundblom, the most famous artist you never knew. He created the Coca-Cola Santa.

Santa is such a ubiquitous physical and cultural presence in these two months before the New Year that you may have taken up the uniform yourself and thought to give this Santa gig a try.

If you were mindful of the moment, you very quickly learned what Phillip Wenz could have suggested if you’d have asked him.

It’s not easy. And it’s hardly ever a simple transaction of good wishes and joviality as it seems. Being Santa is serious business. Sometimes the child asks for an expensive toy. Sometimes the child asks for her grandmother to come back to life. Or her kitten.

“When you are sitting with a child, you are looking into their heart,” Wenz says.

“There are rules all of us in the secret club know. And I’ll share them. The first rule is that when you wear the full costume, you are no longer ‘playing’ Santa. You actually become Santa.”

No cigarettes on the sly; no cussing; no bad moods.

The Santa Claus Oath

In fact, there is an official oath to which 650 professional Santa helpers annually swear allegiance at the national convention in Gatlinburg, Tenn. Wenz wrote it in 2009 to launch the Santa Claus Oath Foundation to protect the legend.

Wenz is a charter member into the International Santa Claus Hall of Fame in Santa Claus, Indiana.

Of the original 14 Hall of Famers, including the first department store Santa, Wenz was the first living Santa to be inducted. In March 2013, he was honored with the first “Legendary Santa Claus” award.

Every professional peer in America likely knows Wenz, and he has standards.

As his oath affirms:

  • “I will seek knowledge to be well-versed in the mysteries of bringing Christmas cheer and goodwill to all the people that I encounter in my journeys and travels.
  • “I shall be dedicated to hearing the secret dreams of both children and adults.
  • “I understand that the true and only gift I can give, as Santa, is myself.
  • “I acknowledge that some of the requests I will hear will be difficult and sad. I know in these difficulties there lies an opportunity to bring a spirit of warmth, understanding, and compassion.
  • “I know the ‘real reason for the season’ and know that I am blessed to be able to be a part of it.
  • “I realize that I belong to a brotherhood and will be supportive, honest, and show fellowship to my peers.
  • “I promise to use ‘my’ powers to create happiness, spread love, and make fantasies come to life in the true and sincere tradition of the Santa Claus Legend.
  • “I pledge myself to these principles as a descendant of St. Nicholas the gift-giver of Myra.”

One day the duties will become too heavy and Phil Wenz will relent. “When I take the costume off for the last time, it will be over,” he says. No curtain calls.

That’s the way Santa works. We only get one at time, and he must be extraordinary.

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David Rutter is a regular contributor to Quintessential Barrington.

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Quintessential America™ is a recurring series of stories reflecting American values and community achievement. Some will be big stories. Some will be small. They’ll all be about Americans doing what we do best — sharing, helping, living.