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PAXTON — Joe Spinelli wears a real Santa beard today. An embarrassing experience with a curious child five years ago made sure of that.
“One little kid pulled the (fake) beard,” Spinelli recalled of his first experience portraying Saint Nicholas, “and I said, ‘I’m going to have an elf talk to you.’”
Each holiday season since then, the 60-year-old semi-retired grandfather has grown, quite literally, into the role of Santa Claus, as he has let his white beard and hair grow to match the authenticity of his unmistakable, jolly laugh.
“And I gained some weight, which I didn’t mind,” he said. “I love to eat.”
Today, Spinelli is known only as Santa Claus to some around his hometown of Paxton — and not just before Christmas, when he makes his seasonal appearances at special events throughout East Central Illinois. Spinelli admits he plays the part year-round, just in case he is spotted out of uniform by the observant youngster.
“When I’ll be shopping and go to the IGA (grocery store) or go to the gas station, I hear, ‘Look, Mom! There’s Santa!’ And a lot of kids go up to me, and I say, ‘Yes, I am.’”
Of course, a convincing answer is all that is required for a child who is already convinced.
But even for all of those adults who still don’t think Santa Claus is real, Spinelli has an answer: “Yes!” Spinelli exclaims convincingly, before letting out a festive laugh reminiscent only of Saint Nick himself.
“I really enjoy it,” he said. “I really do. It makes me feel good that I can make the kids happy.”
Spinelli started portraying Santa five years ago when he was working at Concrete Technology Inc. and the company needed a Santa for its Christmas party.
“Mike Shook and I, both of us worked at High Concrete, and they needed a Santa Claus, and he says, ‘Joe, you’ve already got the laugh. You’ve got to do this,’” Spinelli recalled. “I said, ‘No, I can’t do it.’ And he hounded me and hounded me, and I finally said, ‘OK, Mike, I’ll do it.’”
Spinelli then appeared as Santa at the annual Project Brightstar toy giveaway at the local firehouse that same year.
He was laid off from his job in the plant’s shipping and receiving department months later, when both the concrete plant and Baltimore Air Coil, Paxton’s largest employer, closed their doors.
Spinelli now works part-time at Central Illinois Disposal and Recycling. But during the holidays, he spends probably more time making appearances at various events held at businesses, nursing homes and residences around Paxton and the surrounding area.
“I just put everything into being Santa for the community,” Spinelli said. “(The plant closures) affected everyone, from the truck drivers to the suppliers — it hit us hard in this area. And I just thought, ‘Let’s make something good out of this.’”
Spinelli recently portrayed Santa for the Santa Train — a train that makes stops at some two-dozen towns spanning from Gibson City to Kankakee in a two-day period. He said he visited with hundreds of children and their parents and grandparents.
Spinelli said he tries to get the parents involved whenever needed.
“When the kids will ask for something special — say, something a little costly — I say (to the child), ‘Well, you know what? Let Santa talk to his elves tonight,’” Spinelli said. “And then I look to the parents and say, ‘Santa’s going to be hiring some extra elves.’
“I got a lot of compliments (from parents) on that Santa Train,” he said.
Spinelli is “pretty well booked up” for events in the days preceding Christmas, with visits to homes in Paxton, Buckley, Rantoul and Rankin on the docket. He also has a visit to the Illinois Knights Templar Home in Paxton lined up.
“I make a little money (portraying Santa), but I’d rather not. I’d rather just do it for free, or pretty much just for a little food or something like that,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be for money. It can be for some cookies or a piece of cake. ... Because I don’t want this to be a business. This is coming from the heart, and this is to help the community.
“I have four grandchildren, but they live in California, so I can’t spend time with them. So in a way, this (helps fill that void by allowing) me to spend some time with the other kids.”
Being a convincing Santa takes lots more work than some may realize. Hours are spent researching toy catalogs and Internet sites to stay informed about all the popular children’s gifts each year.
Children are not easily fooled if Santa does not know the toy, Spinelli noted.
“They’ll look at you to see if you know what they’re talking about,” Spinelli said. “So you’ve got to be fast (with your answers). When they ask or say something, you’ve got to be fast, because if you hesitate, they’re on to you.”
It helps that Spinelli looks the part, too.
“With the real beard and the hair, they just stare, and then they go out and touch it (to see if it is real),” he said.
Spinelli said he has a busy Christmas Eve planned this year.
“I’ll be busy,” he said. “I have a list already (of each household to visit).”
Spinelli said he looks forward to Christmas all year.
“One little girl on the Santa Train, she goes, ‘Santa, I want you to have a nice Christmas,’” Spinelli recalled.
“And I said, ‘Sweetheart, what makes my Christmas is to see that all the kids are happy.’
“I said, ‘I want you to have a very merry Christmas. Is there anything special you want?’
“She said, ‘That’s all. That’s all I want from you, Santa.’”