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Tipster said the real Santa was coming, so I went to see for myself

  • Hayden O'Connor eats breakfast with his family after meeting with Santa Claus during a Breakfast with Santa event put on by the Hopkinton Recreation Department at the Slusser Center in Contoocook on Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • With a bit of encouragement from her father Joe Czarnecki (right), 5-year-old Avery of Contoocook asks Santa Claus for a Hatchimals toy for Christmas during a Breakfast with Santa event put on by the Hopkinton Recreation Department at the Slusser Center in Contoocook on Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Kiera Corwin, 7, talks to Santa Claus during a Breakfast with Santa event put on by the Hopkinton Recreation Department at the Slusser Center in Contoocook on Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor staff

  • Nine-year-old Cole Czarnecki asks Santa Claus for a couple of video game consoles for Christmas during a Breakfast with Santa event put on by the Hopkinton Recreation Department at the Slusser Center in Contoocook on Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Children meet with Santa Claus during a Breakfast with Santa event put on by the Hopkinton Recreation Department at the Slusser Center in Contoocook on Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff



Monitor columnist
Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The news tip was startling – an email alerting me that another celebrity, this one far bigger than Hillary Clinton, would visit the area.

He’d appear at a breakfast in Hopkinton, for a good cause. Not for the 30 bucks the former first lady and presidential candidate charged each ticket holder last week at a Concord bookstore for a hardcover, her John Hancock and a forced smile.

This celebrity, the source said, would visit in the spirit of the season, traveling from the North Pole, giving and giving and giving some more. Real giving. Unselfish giving.

Still, I was filled with the skepticism of a hard-boiled, old-school journalist, but forced to act nonetheless. How else would I know if this man, appearing at something called Breakfast With Santa, was the real Claus?

Could you imagine missing the scoop of the century? Could you imagine blowing the chance to speak with Claus, the man who travels around the globe in a sleigh powered by a team of reindeer, who knows which children are bad and which are good, who slips down chimneys and leaves beautifully wrapped gifts, then zips back to the North Pole, where the entire yearlong process begins all over again?

So I got up early and drove over, knowing Claus rarely appears in public.

He looked the part, like Hillary did in her pantsuit. He wore a red coat and red cuffs, red pants, black boots and wire-rimmed glasses. He sported a few extra pounds. Looked real enough to me.

But, unlike Hillary, there were no obvious identifying factors involved, nothing to broadcast that this was a huge event. No Secret Service. No media relations people escorting the press to select locations. And no reindeer. No elves, either.

Just Claus.

And me.

And lots and lots of kids, all around 3 and older, all wide-eyed, believing.

I began my interview looking to throw Claus off balance, reveal an out-of-place whisker in his long white beard.

Um, Santa, how long did it take you to get here, to Hopkinton?

“A 24-hour ride,” Claus, sitting in a corner of the Slusser Center lobby, said, with no hesitation. “No layovers. I took a catnap this morning.

“Ho-ho-ho-ho-ho-ho-ho-ho.”

How was the weather on the way?

“Nice and clear. Ho-ho-ho-ho-ho-ho-ho-ho.”

I know what you’re thinking. Research suggests that it does, indeed, take Claus a full day to reach North America, and four ho-ho’s are the norm when he thinks something is funny.

But I needed more. I questioned the people involved with the event, all volunteers, all happy to have me there, all making me very suspicious with their open arms.

I met Paula Simpkins, the Hopkinton Recreation Department Director. She was in the lobby registering parents and their kids. I mentioned that I’d covered Hillary the week before, and now I wanted to write about someone with an even bigger impact.

“Yes, a lot has been going on around here lately,” Simpkins said. “This is a nice way to reach out.”

Soon, I learned that Operation Santa annually raises money for the town’s Operation Christmas program, run by the Hopkinton Human Services Department. Clothes and toys are given to needy children, and the whole scenario feeds off the foundation built from this breakfast.

I walked through the kitchen and met the three cooks, all volunteers, wearing red Christmas-stocking hats, working their spatulas, smiling.

Mark Newton fried the bacon and cooked the eggs. Jim Martin flipped the flapjacks, carefully pouring the batter into the shape of snowmen. Jim Lewis was on potato duty.

They’ve been volunteering for years, although they weren’t sure exactly when this program began. Lewis said he hopes to one day move to flapjack duty.

“I’m waiting for him to retire,” he said, pointing at Martin.

Their enthusiasm and good cheer suggested retirement won’t happen anytime soon. At least from volunteering.

Marilyn Ceriello Bresaw, director of Human Services, walked in from the dining area and told me that Claus had said it was snowing when he left the North Pole.

“He told the kids the snow was coming here,” Ceriello Bresaw said. “And the kids were like, ‘Really?’ ”

She said at least 66 children from dozens of families were expected to meet Claus and eat breakfast.

“Who’s bigger than Santa?” Ceriello Bresaw said.

That’s when Ed Kerr, chairman of the Hopkinton Recreation Committee, came over and said this function began at least 20 years ago.

“Most of the kids, after they meet Santa, they don’t care that much about breakfast,” Kerr said.

Volunteer servers stood behind a table of silver-toned trays, with bacon, sausage, hash browns, pancakes and eggs. The room was buzzing, filled with children fresh off their meeting with the man claiming to be Claus.

Six-year-old Hayden O’Connor and his sister, 4-year-old Nora, sat with their mother, Lauren O’Connor, who explained that neither child sat on Claus’s lap.

Apparently, Hayden wondered what good that would do, asking his mom, “Why should I? I already mailed my letter for what I want.”

He wants a flute; Nora wants a computer, a phone and makeup.

Ty Barton, 8 and freckled, told me he wanted ice skates to use on the pond near his house. He raced toward Claus and hugged him.

“I love it because I build snowmen,” Ty told me, referring to this time of year. “And snow forts and having snowball fights.”

His younger sister, Tess, said she loves all those things, too, adding that she gets hit with more snowballs than Ty.

“I like Santa,” she told me. “I get presents.”

I wondered what these kids knew about Claus, and Ty told me how he monitors behavior. The naughty or nice thing.

“I think he has a magic snow globe,” Ty said.

Joe and Nicole Czarnecki brought their four children, ages 5 to 14. Avery is 5 and has no front teeth, but she’s old enough to know “Santa comes here every year.” She’s hoping for a dog ornament and a lion with wings. She didn’t go for the obvious joke about two front teeth.

On Dec. 24 each year, 7-year-old Cailynn admitted she sometimes stays awake late, and she knows reindeer hooves when she hears them, creaking on the roof, above her bedroom ceiling.

Joe Czarnecki made sure his children realized how special this breakfast was, saying, “We’re lucky he could get here.”

Kasey, the oldest child at 14, chimed in: “It’s nice to see the kids having fun.”

I was coming around, softening. I still had no hard evidence that this Claus was the Claus, so I went back to the lobby to investigate further. I asked Claus about what Ty had said, something about a magic globe used as a radar, to detect behavior, bad and good.

“Yes, we do use the magic globe,” Claus confirmed. “But one of the biggest helpers is the Elf on the Shelf. The elf reports back every night on how the kids are doing.

“Ho-ho-ho-ho-ho-ho-ho-ho.”

Have the children been good this year? I wondered.

“They’ve been very good,” Claus answered. “No trouble with any of them. All have been good. Most have been very good.”

Of course, Simpkins, the town’s recreation director, insisted her town had scored a coup. She said I was in on the ground floor of a major story, the one that had started with a tip that said Santa Claus was coming to town.

“Santa and I are very close,” said Simpkins, bending her middle finger over her index finger to emphasize their friendship. “I’m at the top of his list. I called in a favor and he came.”

I believed her. The kids confirmed it for me, their smiles and excitement, the look in their eyes. That was more than enough for this hard-boiled egg.

“Merry Christmas,” I said to Santa on the way out the door.

“Merry Christmas,” he said.

“Ho-ho-ho-ho-ho-ho-ho-ho.”

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304, rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)