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Talking to the Real-Life Santa Claus, a Monk Who Lives at the North Pole

"I detest the fact that, in many places, Christmas has become a crass, commercial, secular spectacle."

Real-life Santa Claus is a real-life monk. Photo courtesy of Santa Claus.

Santa Claus's Facebook page is filled with inspirational posters and memes. Tons of them, all meditations on a similar theme: love, compassion, peace, frugality, empathy.

One of them shows an adult reaching out to a child below to help it up. "Don't be impressed by money, followers, degrees, or titles" it reads. "Be impressed by humility, integrity, generosity and kindness." Another features a photo of Mark Twain and a quote attributed to him: "Kindness is a language that the deaf can hear and the blind can see."


"Want to keep Christ in Christmas?" another reads, its text pasted over a barn and a sky full of stars. "Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, forgive the guilty, welcome the stranger and the unwanted child, care for the sick, love your enemies."

This isn't the Santa Claus of Coke advertisements or children's books, this is the real Santa Claus of the real North Pole, Alaska. He's a 68-year-old Christian monk and cancer patient who uses medical marijuana and is a tireless child advocate. He has just under 300,000 Facebook fans, and his movement is growing. In October he was elected to the City Council in North Pole, where he'd previously served as President of the Chamber of Commerce.

"I never 'aspired' to become Santa," Santa told me via email. "I grew out my beard 11 years ago, and it was naturally white and soft. Friends suggested I appear as a volunteer Santa locally, which I did."

Santa, then going by his birth-name Thomas O'Connor and living in Nevada, was well received as the jolly giver of gifts, and so started appearing as him at charity events and for nonprofits. In February of 2005 he walked to his local post office in Lake Tahoe when a car passed him. A voice shouted "I LOVE YOU, SANTA," from the open car window. Moments before the drive-by shouting, he'd asked for a sign from God about a direction for his advocacy. "I prayed about how I should best use my new appearance for a greater number of children," says Santa. "I took it as an immediate answer to my prayer."


Santa Claus was born in Washington, DC, and grew up on the East Side of Manhattan. For years he served as a law enforcement administrator and consultant to a variety of public safety agencies and as an educator and emergency response chaplain. After finding I'd once worked at the Village Voice, he told me, "The Village Voice was about 15 or 16 when I was Special Assistant to the Deputy Police Commissioner of New York City, during the Lindsay administration—decades before my Santa years."

That job, as well as one as head of security for the Port Authority, exposed Santa to, as the Washington Post put it in their story about him, "the plethora of ills that plague America's youth—abuse, neglect, homelessness, institutionalization."

So he chose activism and moved West.

Inspirational posters from Santa Claus's Facebook.

"I completed the legal process to change my name in 2005," Santa told me. "I began concentrating on child advocacy and noticed that legislators' staffs engaged me when I mentioned my name was Santa Claus; and, I garnered a fair amount of success advocating for child health, safety, and welfare. It helped that I had a ton of Facebook followers."

In 2013, after a quixotic run for in 2012, Santa decided to move to North Pole, Alaska, in order to muster the maximum impact with his advocacy. "From then on, I discovered that when I, as Santa Claus from North Pole, Alaska, call a legislator, I'm able to convince them that it is not only in children's best interest that they respond favorably, but it is in their best interest as well. No legislator wants a broadcaster or publisher to characterize them as refusing a request from Santa to help vulnerable children in dire straits. My approach seems a bit unusual, but it has served me, and children, well.


"I believe the greatest gift one can give is love, not necessarily presents," added Santa. "I detest the fact that, in many places, Christmas has become a crass, commercial, secular spectacle."

That belief, "the greatest gift one can give is love," comes up a lot when corresponding with Santa. It's on his Facebook page, too. And Santa, who joined the Celtic Anglican order Anam Cara in the early 2000s, is prone to drop quotes from Mother Teresa on you that revolve around the same theme.

So rest assured, children of the world, Santa Claus is alive and just as kind-hearted as you'd expect—only don't send him any letters. He won't answer them; it says so right on his website.

"There are plenty of 'Santas' and companies who already [reply to kids' letters]," Santa said. "My advocacy is geared toward helping the greatest number of children—more than 2 million children in the US annually are abused, neglected, exploited, abandoned, homeless, and institutionalized."

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