Behind the belly
The story of one local Santa
By Amy E. Tucker
Bill Rosenberger, 54, of Latham was an 18-year-old McDonald’s employee when he donned his first Santa Claus suit to entertain the restaurantís smallest patrons. Some 36-years later, his large, black boots and red, fur-trimmed coat remain the same, but the appearances he schedules and how he approaches the various gigs have adjusted with the times.
“Things are a lot different today,” Rosenberger explained. In this day and age all Santaís must be mindful of what theyíre doing and saying at all times.
The basics are still the same. You have to have the right attitude and be positive no matter what happens. After all, you’re portraying “jolly St. Nick.”
“I’m a happy, funny guy and that’s how you have to be to have fun with the kids,” he said. You have to show that you’re interested in what the kids are talking about, but you have to be careful, too.”
As Santa, Rosenberger gives children important safety tips, such as never talk to strangers. When parents tell him their child isn’t obeying, he takes their phone number and calls up their child as Santa. “I remind them they have to mind their mom and dad and ‘be good for goodness’ sake!’”
Throughout history, older children have always played along with the magic of Santa Claus for the benefit of their younger siblings. But, Rosenberger thinks technology is stealing the fantasy from children at a younger age every year.
“Children have access to so much knowledge today between the Internet and other sources,” he conceded. “They stop believing earlier and earlier it seems.”
Still it’s the sick children that prove his most difficult challenge.
“Giving them a toy won’t make it better, but I’m told that Santa Claus is number two on the roster behind God. So, sometimes the kids will listen to you and take what you say to heart.”
Rosenberger’s own granddaughter passed away two years ago at the age of seven. She was being treated for cancer in the Albany Medical Center pediatric unit. Dressed as Santa, Rosenberger purchased gifts from the Dollar Store to bring them some holiday joy.
“As I handed out the simplest of gifts, their smiles were amazing,” he reflected. “These poor, innocent kids who are sick and might not make it were thrilled that I took the time to stop by.”
Another frequent challenge comes with over-anxious parents.
“Sometimes kids are scared [of me] and parents put too much pressure on them,” he said frustrated. “If the kid is three feet away and crying, I talk softly to them and try to get them to approach me. If they keep crying, I tell their parents that they’re not ready and are still too young.”
Rosenberger maintains a full-time job at the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles, where he’s worked for 17 years, as well as a part-time position at Bella Napoli in Latham.
Over the years, Rosenberger has played Santa Claus at both the Northway and Crossgates Malls. He’s in his ninth year working with the annual CBS 6 Melodies of Christmas show at Proctor’s Theater in Schenectady and he’ll also be at the Canfield Casino this month for the annual David B. Silipigno Foundation event benefiting at-risk children in Saratoga County. But, on Christmas mornings, he’s able to deliver perhaps the most precious gift of all…
After the transformation into Santa Claus, Rosenberger heads to St. Peters Hospital to bring the newborn Christmas babies to their mothers.
In addition to the holiday performances and corporate parties, Rosenberger also visits five families over three hours on Christmas Eve. Together with his 16-year-old daughter Kristina, who dresses as his elf, he fills his giant sack with gifts that the parents leave for him outside their front door.
“We knock and enter, sing a few carols, hand out the presents to the children and pose for a few photographs at each house,” he explained. “The gift sack is so large my daughter practically vanishes inside it when she’s retrieving the presents!”
Rosenberger hopes to continue playing jolly St. Nick for a long time to come and has invested more than $600 in his costume, including prescription wire-rimmed glasses.
“I do it because I enjoy doing it. Iíve never skipped any house visit or missed an appearance in 36 years!
Even though he does receive payment for certain events, for Rosenberger it’s more about bringing smiles to children’s faces. Not to mention the perks.
One time Rosenberger stopped in a grocery store on the way home from an appearance. The rosy-cheeked Santa approached the rather long check-out line only to find himself ushered to the front!
Rosenberger has perhaps been most blessed during his career through being able to avoid such holiday mishaps as having his suit catch on fire or the Christmas tree topple over onto him.
“I just work my magic and everything turns out fine,” said Rosenberger. “After all, I’m Santa Claus!”
Amy Tucker is a freelance writer from Clifton Park.