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Pennsylvania Santa Claus takes hobby, and season, seriously
LEBANON, Pa — Lebanon resident John Gable works in customer service for RR Donnelly, but around the holiday season, he becomes Santa Claus.
“Christmas has always held a special magic for me, and it gives me joy to bring that happiness and magic to children,” Gable said.
Gable started portraying Santa Claus in 2005.
“I wanted to both volunteer and have fun, so I was with Aseracare, a hospice group, and I dressed and went with them to American House and some nursing homes,” Gable said. “While I was doing that, somebody told me they were looking for a Santa Claus at a tree farm in Pottstown, so I went there and worked for two years.”
Since 2012, Gable has been portraying Santa at Misty Run Tree Farm, 2017 Brandt Road, Annville, and he was Santa at the Lebanon Valley Mall for six years before a scheduling change at the mall brought that to an end.
While Gable was a mall Santa, he wouldn’t just put on a fake beard and a store-bought Santa costume.
“When kids see a guy in a shabby suit and a beard hanging down past his face, it just isn’t believable,” Gable said.
Instead of a fake beard, Gable bleaches his own brown hair and beard, which he grows for a full year, to better look the part of Santa Claus.
“I bleach it, and I have to keep bleaching the roots throughout the season until it is over,” he said. “My wife helps me bleach - it is not her favorite thing to do since the bleach is messy and smells bad - but she is super about helping me with it.”
Gable is also a stickler for detail when it comes to his Santa suit.
“I actually learned how to do leatherwork so I could make the belt,” he said. “I’m also working on a full set of Saint Nicholas robes. That’s a project I’ve been working on for about two years, and it still isn’t finished.”
Typically, Gable works with others to design and make his Santa suits.
“Bianca Zidik made my latest Santa coat, which is based on a double-breasted, Civil War-era coat,” Gable said. “I gave her all the supplies and a picture, and she did a great job. Stacy Cravener, one of my coworkers, made my second suit for me.”
While bleaching his beard costs him time, the suits cost some money.
“It is expensive to create something like this. The new coat cost around $600,” Gable said.
Although the hobby is expensive, Gable is able to pay for it in part by doing “Santa & Me” photo sessions with Annville-based photographer, Courtney Haldeman.
“Working with Courtney has helped me make a little cash at it, which was not my intention at the beginning, but it helps me pay for the suit and everything,” Gable said.
Like the character he portrays, Gable is also active in charity.
“This will be the third year that we’ve selected a family to help out at Christmas time,” Gable said. “We don’t tell them. It’s an anonymous type of thing until we deliver it.”
Gable calls this “Operation: Be a Santa,” in which he collects donations from the community to help a family in need.
“Last year we were able to hook a family up with a used, but still in very good condition, washer and dryer, bunk beds, toys for the kids, groceries, household products - all through donations,” Gable said. “I don’t have a lot of money, but I am the point person for this, and people come and donate money, food and gift cards.”
Gable would like to help more families eventually, but has to keep it on a smaller scale for now.
“We keep it kind of small, but we do help one family per year,” he said. “I’d love to do more than that, but I can only do one. It always starts out slow, and then things pick up with the donations toward the end of the season.”
While collecting donations, Gable will occasionally ask for specific items for the chosen family via his Facebook page, Lebanon PA Santa.
“I know I posted these before, but (here are) specific gift ideas for our adopted kids, maybe one person or a group of people would like to help one of our kids,” Gable said in a Facebook post Nov. 26 before listing specific items for the children such as Legos and Miami Dolphins merchandise for an 11-year-old boy, an iPod for a 12-year-old girl and Barbie dolls for an 8-year-old girl.
Gable also does “Sensitive Santa” events that are specifically for autistic children and children with disabilities.
“We did two years of ‘Sensitive Santa’ at the Lebanon Farmers Market,” he said. “We set up in an empty space in what is now the Visit Lebanon Valley office, and there would be no music or bells or other distractions.”
This eventually led to Gable working directly with the Developmental and Disability Services of Lebanon Valley for “Sensitive Santa” events held at their office at 1126 Walnut St., Lebanon.
“This is the second year I’m doing it with them,” Gable said. “Children who have trouble walking, or who have trouble with sensory overload at the mall can come to a ‘Sensitive Santa’ event to get a picture. We have a photographer there who specializes in photos with autistic children.”
Gable also does a “Cookies with Santa” fundraising event at Lebanon High School, “Breakfast with Santa” at the Lebanon Country Club and visits the Lebanon branch of the Jack and Jill Nursery.
“I love to do all the events, but it can get a little overwhelming … I’m ready for a break by Christmas,” Gable said. “I usually take off from my regular job the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day just so I can relax with my family.”
Gable has two teenage sons and one teenage daughter, and they don’t seem to mind that their father is a Santa.
“I thought my kids would be embarrassed by the whole thing, but they’ve always been really good about it,” Gable said. “It’s more of a novelty to them now, but when they were younger, I had to hide it from them a little bit.”
While Gable enjoys portraying Santa, he does his best to keep his hobby separate from everyday life.
“I try not to play up me as Santa outside of the events I do,” he said. “I dress in regular clothes when I’m going about my daily life, but sometimes kids make the connection.”
Gable tells the story of how he may have saved a parent from a major headache at the mall even without having to be in his Santa suit.
“My son and I were at the mall one time, and some guy was having trouble with his child - the child was crying and fussing,” Gable said. “Then he turned around and saw me and stopped. I’d like to think I was the reason he stopped crying, but I don’t know.”
Despite his love for portraying Santa Claus, Gable says he is happy to keep it to just one season in the year.
“It is a Christmas thing, and that’s what makes it special,” he said.