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For some in northern Michigan, Santa is a year-round commitment.

Max Copeland
Interlochen Public Radio
From left to right: Michael Howe, Greg Caskie and Ted Flynn.

If you happened to walk into Rico’s Cafe in Grawn on a recent Thursday afternoon, you might have thought you just stumbled into the North Pole. Seven men with round bellies and thick white beards sat around a table.

They meet here regularly to talk about their common identity as Santa Claus.

Max Copeland
Interlochen Public Radio
From left to right: Charlie Johnson, Carol Nickles, Michael Howe, Greg Caskie, Ted Flynn, Jim Jordan, Bill Stickney, Gerald Neumann and Daniel Pless

“They never told me that in college — ’Oh by the way, if you keep gaining weight your new job is going to be Santa,’” said Michael Howe from Reed City.

He said this gathering is an opportunity to learn about what works, and what doesn’t when being Santa.

For instance, some guys here don’t “ho-ho-ho” because they say it can scare the children. Others tell stories about their reindeer, or Mrs. Claus.

When Howe puts on the red suit he uses his Santa voice which is softer, higher-pitched and more expressive. He said it’s natural for him because he’s a singer.

“It helps me be that magical Santa and create that environment that I like to create,” Howe said.

Howe retired from teaching middle school computer science in 2020. Now, he’s the president of the Michigan Association of Professional Santas. He said one of his biggest regrets over his 30 years of teaching was not stressing good character enough. So now, as Santa Claus, when he tells a story to a child he’s sure to include a moral.

“It’s kind of like redeeming the things that I didn’t get to do in my younger career that I get to do now as Santa,” said Howe.

Max Copeland
Interlochen Public Radio
Michael Howe from Reed City first portrayed Santa 28 years ago, but he’s been professional for the past three years. He is the current president of the Michigan Association of Professional Santas

He said he rehearses new stories every year to make it as real as possible for the kids.

Paying attention to the child and making them feel special is one of the key aspects to being a good Santa. And for these guys, it’s something they think about all year long. Because no matter the time of year, or even what they’re wearing these guys still get recognized as Santa Claus.

It also changes the way they see themselves.

“My wife says, ‘Are you willing to give up your identity?’ I say, ‘Yes.’ Because the Santa identity is better than the Michael identity that I lived with and because by being Santa I literally feel like I’m a better me,” said Howe.

That means there are certain things he just won’t do anymore like drinking in public. Because he doesn’t want to confuse any kids who might be watching.

Greg Caskie knows that year-round commitment. He lives in Interlochen and organized today's luncheon.

“All year round I’m conscious of it,” said Caskie. “I get mad at somebody driving down the road I can’t flip ‘em off — you know because they look over and what are they lookin’ at?”

They’re looking at Santa.

Santa Greg.jpg
Max Copeland
Interlochen Public Radio
Greg Caskie from Interlochen has been a professional Santa since 2017.

Caskie said he’s used to representing a public image from his time as an officer in the Coast Guard.

He got his start as Santa when he was asked to do a benefit for orphans. He bought a suit from a party store, but when he got it home and looked at it he was disappointed.

“Yeah, this is a piece of junk,” he said.

He threw out the fake beard, the cheesy cloth belt, and the slip on covers that are supposed to look like boots.

“It’s great for the uncle who’s gonna do it for the family,” Caskie said. “It’s one of those kinds of suits.”

That first year he spent about a thousand dollars upgrading his Santa suit, and he wasn’t even getting paid yet. He volunteered for a couple years before he started professionally in 2017. Since then he’s spent even more money on suits.

“I’m expecting another two to three years, I may have paid for all the stuff I’ve bought,” said Caskie.

He does it to see the excitement in the faces of kids and adults.

Ted Flynn from Grand Rapids knows that feeling. He’s been a Santa for about 40 years, even when he’s sleeping.

“When I start pinching my beard in my armpit at night when I’m sleeping it’s … time to get the beard trimmed,” Flynn said.

Not breaking character can sometimes go wrong when he’s awake too. Like at an event with about 500 adults. He was talking to a couple, and the woman kept asking who he was and how she knew him.

“And I said ‘I’m Santa … ‘course you know me, I’ve known you all your life,’” recalled Flynn. “She grabbed my beard to yank it off. Well it’s a real beard, it didn't come off. I went down to my knees and in tears.”

Max Copeland
Interlochen Public Radio
Ted Flynn from Grand Rapids has been portraying Santa for 40 years.

But for Flynn, even that is not the toughest part about being Santa. It’s when he meets kids going through hard times — like having a dad deployed overseas, or a mom with cancer.

“Some things are just beyond what you can do,” he said. “It’s hard to accept that when your goal in life is to make every child’s dream come true. To make that Christmas magic happen. And it kinda rips your heart out when it doesn’t. But if it doesn’t, you probably don’t belong in the chair.

Flynn said come Christmastime there are a lot of fat guys with red suits sitting in chairs, but the thing that really makes them Santa is if their heart is truly in it.

Max Copeland is the local weekday host of All Things Considered on Interlochen Public Radio and the producer of The Up North Lowdown, IPR’s weekly news podcast (coming soon!). Max grew up in Traverse City and graduated from Central High School in 2014. He went on to study broadcast journalism at Michigan State University.