While he may get to spend the majority of the year preparing for Christmas, it's safe to say the big guy in red has a full dance card from the moment he steps off the final float on the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade until Christmas Sunday. Because his schedule is so busy, Santa Claus handpicks helpers to share the load of mall visits, private holiday parties and school visits. We've tracked down four of Santa's helpers in the area to ask them what it's like to help one of the holiday's most recognizable faces.
Nineteen years ago, Lonnie Benham was taking his grandson to his Boy Scout pack's Christmas party at Washington Township Elementary School when he learned the man scheduled to help Santa had been in a fatal car accident. Benham was asked to put on the red suit and fake beard to fill in. He returns each year to listen to the Christmas wishes of the Scouts.
The rest of the year, Benham, of Valparaiso, doesn't stray far from the mentality of St. Nick, repairing bikes for The Salvation Army and helping at a local food pantry. He starts to grow his beard the last week in June. That way it stays in place on his face when doubters pull on it to see if it's fake. He doesn't shave it off until New Year's Day.
On a recent chilly November day, Benham answered the door not in his Santa suit, but still managing to look like Santa on a day off in a plaid shirt and overalls. From his overalls' front pocket, he pulled out a pocket-sized calendar where he keeps track of all his Santa engagements.
"It's right there if the phone rings," Benham said.
He never charges to appear as Santa and has become so well known people bring him Santa gifts, including a new Santa suit he found on his front porch after an afternoon volunteering at the food pantry. It joined the two other Santa suits in his closet, right next to his special gold-rimmed glasses that he places on the end of his nose.
Usually helping Santa involves answering questions: Where are the reindeer? What will you do if there's no snow on the ground? But sometimes it involves requests that tug at Benham's heartstrings. He filled in for Santa at a hospital for terminally ill children. One day a little girl asked Benham to pick her up out of her wheelchair so she could sit on his lap. So he obliged, and, once on his lap, she gave him a kiss. The next Christmas, the girl was gone.
"I try to give them a good Christmas a least," he said.
The first time Dan Keilman put on a Santa suit, it was because the nuns asked him to do so. Keilman was in fourth grade at the now-closed St. Joseph School in Dyer playing Santa in the Christmas play. He said it was an early test to see if he might be a good fit for the seminary.
"I had buck teeth. You're not a shining star when you have buck teeth," he said.
But that first Santa stint gave him confidence.
"I can be Santa Claus. I must be able to be something," he remembers thinking.
Keilman's family didn't have much money as he was growing up, so his father donned a Santa suit to help the family earn some additional cash. Like Keilman today, his father had been selected by Santa, too. "I'm Santa Claus' helper," Keilman remembers his dad telling him.
"Santa Claus was the epitome of who my dad was," he said. "A giver to the people."
Years later, after spending 18 years as principal of Bailly Elementary School in Chesterton, the school asked Keilman to fill in for Santa for its kindergartners, unknowingly adding another Santa layer to Keilman family history. He believes the kids can tell how much he loves helping Santa. He believes having enthusiasm and a love for kids is a requirement for being a good Santa helper.
"I didn't believe in Santa, but I know you are him," one student told him.
In his Chesterton home's sunroom, Santa always is present. He's sleeping in bed, in a figurine on the coffee table. He's sitting atop the Christmas tree in the corner. He's woven into a Christmas scene on a blanket covering a recliner, and when Keilman sits down, he covers the woven Santa, taking his place in the picture.
"You've got to say things that fit into their life," Keilman said of his time helping Santa. "'I would like a mommy. I would like a daddy.' And what do you say? I say, 'I don't think I can bring you a mommy, but you can really love the people you live with who love you.'"
Raisin oatmeal cookies with chocolate milk. That's what Merrillville's Chuck Stojakovich tells the kids Santa wants left for him on Christmas Eve this year, changing it up each year because Santa can get tired of chocolate chip.
Like changing cookies, Stojakovich and Santa have had to deal with changing times. Wish lists are no longer always sent through the U.S. Postal Service as Stojakovich has had children hop onto his lap and ask him if he's received their wish list. One was emailed to him last week.
With Stojakovich's own children now grown, he loves helping Santa by spending time with the people who seem to get the biggest kick out of Christmas — the kids.
"I miss that, seeing the expression on the kids' faces," he said. "The adults, too."
Stojakovich helps Santa at a variety of events, but what he enjoys most about each time he puts on the red suit is the same.
"Just the holiday spirit, the giving. ... If you can get a smile out of somebody, that's the greatest thing," he said.
He calls it a privilege to be one of Santa's helpers and wouldn't trade it for anything.
"It's one of the best things in the world," he said.
David Good believes kids are honest to Santa, and in their honesty is an innocence he loves. He asks them what they want Santa to bring their parents and they answer with honesty: a case of hairspray, a Harley, a boat.
But for the past few years, this Santa helper from Kouts has heard the request of children become simpler, based on their economic situations. He believes they sense when money is tight and adjust their requests accordingly, asking for only one or two things.
"You gotta have fun," he said on a freezing Saturday morning as he waited for horses to be hooked up to a cart that would take him down Main Street to the True Value Hardware store in town. "My personality is I tease the parents, too."
At the store, the kids give him a range of reactions, from bursting into tears once on his lap to snuggling into the folds of his red suit, obviously waiting for that moment for the past year.
"You pick up all your toys? Make the bed? Play nice with all the kids? Chase the boys?" Good said as he teased a 6-year-old girl who blushed and giggled at his questions.
Even Santa's helpers sometimes need help, so Good attends each event with his two elves, Katie Lolkema, 20, and Zoe Yergler, 13, who are both in on his Santa's helper secret.
"Everywhere I go, it's hard to see through all the hair and my glasses steam up," he said. His elves whisper in his ear who's approaching so he can greet them with his booming voice and belly laugh.
Good loves it all. The kids. Their answers. The adults. He mischievously tells the kids it's OK to be excited Christmas morning and they have his permission to go jump on their parents' bed to wake them up as early as 5 a.m.
After a long night of work, by 5 a.m. the ringer on Santa's phone always is turned to silent.