Night after night now, as he has done for years, Santa Claus appears at the North Pole in south Wichita, giving toys to children and saying “Merry Christmas” in a deep bass voice.
By day, in the days leading up to Christmas, the jolly fat man with the long white beard appears elsewhere as well – at places like the Lord’s Diner, the Catholic Care Home, the Knights of Columbus, nursing homes, Envision or an early education school called TOP.
He has three rules:
• Santa works for free.
• For every child, or every adult, wanting Santa – and there are sometimes hundreds of each – there will be at least one toy, usually small and stuffed.
• And though this Santa is white and Christian, he will give a toy and joy to every child, “no matter their race or their color or their creed.”
And every year, Santa says, he finds yet another 11- or 12-year-old kid who smirks at Santa and dares to say: “Santa is not real.”
And Santa has an answer.
For going on two decades, Jim Liss has put on green tights and served North Pole Santa in south Wichita as his Grandpa Elf, handing out toys, traveling to hundreds of places in Wichita.
“For years, we’d sometimes pay for the toys out of our own pockets,” he said.
They did it when Santa was young and could stand up to any strain. And they do it even now, Liss said, when Santa has to be helped out of the chair after greeting the children, his hips and legs aching.
The kids don’t know this, Liss said, but Santa’s left leg hurts so bad that he tries, when the kids climb into his lap, to guide them to his right leg, which doesn’t hurt as much. But if there are two children, or if the child prefers the left leg, Santa smiles and laughs his jolly laugh.
North Pole Santa is known about town. People at Interfaith Ministries know him from his visits; so do people at the Lord’s Diner, where Liss used to direct the volunteers.
But it got so that 10 years ago, what with his aches and pains, North Pole Santa made it possible for children to come to him: He set up shop at his home and in some sheds built especially for the purpose, a location he calls the North Pole.
“My Wichita substation,” he said. “I have a substation in every city and town in the world.”
And so you can see him there yourself in the next few nights, from 6 to 9 p.m., at 1841 S. Glenn. On Thursday night, teenage elves helped Santa by dancing to a choreographed number; there were lots of lighted decorations, a Nativity scene and a sleigh with all the reindeer.
People came from as far as Mulvane and El Dorado. An 11-year-old, escorting his little brother, was reluctant to get on Santa’s lap himself until Santa said, “You’re never too old.”
Over the years, Liss said, there have been thousands of children and many thousands of toys – 3,100 last year – all donated or bought out of their own pockets.
There was a little kid with leukemia living near Goddard, Liss said. Santa and Grandpa Elf came to see him.
That was years ago, Liss said. It still brings tears to his eyes.
The child loved his time with Santa, Liss said. He died soon after.
Believing in Santa
North Pole Santa sat down wearily, wearing his Santa cap and a many-times-laundered red sweatshirt hoodie.
The youngest person Santa has ever given a toy to? “One hour old,” he said.
And the oldest person ever to sit on Santa’s lap: “112.”
When asked whether he had a “real” name, he laughed again.
“Santa Claus,” he said.
When asked for his date of birth, he laughed yet again.
“Two thousand and some years ago.”
There is no other answer to questions like that.
“Because, you know, Santa is real.”
“But you know how kids are,” he said. “Around the time they turn 11 or 12, they start to think that they know something.
“And so sometimes they look at me, and they try to tell me that Santa is not real. And I tell them that he is real. And that I can prove it.
“First, I tell them to tug on my beard. And when they do it gently, I tell them, ‘Give it a real hard tug!’ And they see that my beard is real.
“And then I ask them, ‘Do you know what Santa is really all about?’ And when they don’t quite know what to say, I say, ‘Isn’t Santa about the spirit of giving?’ And they always say yes.
“So then I ask them, ‘Do you ever get presents at Christmas?’ ‘Yes,’ they say. And did that make you feel good? And of course, they say yes,” North Pole Santa said.
“So then I say, ‘And do you ever give someone presents at Christmas time?’ And they say yes. And does that make you feel good? And they say, ‘Yes, yes it does.’
“So then I say, ‘Well, then, you and I are a lot alike. We like to get presents. We like to give presents.’
“And then I say, ‘When you give presents, you’re doing what Santa does.’ And they nod yes.
“And then I ask them: ‘Well? Do you believe in yourself?’ ”
Contributing: Jaime Green and Hurst Laviana of The Eagle