Memories are Santa’s gift
The very being of Santa Claus is about being good and of giving to others. At least that is how Gary Browne sees it.
Browne has portrayed Santa Claus locally for about 18 years as close as he can figure. The first time he handed out candy canes to a couple of children and adults on the steps of City Hall, it didn't occur to him to start counting the years he would be Santa.
But 18 is close, and he can stop counting. Browne is hanging up his Santa hat, because of health reasons. That's all that could stop him, for he still fits the job description perfectly.
"You've got to love kids and love Christmas," Browne says.
Browne, whose livelihood comes from the antique business, never intended to be Santa Claus. Yet when the Baldwin City Chamber of Commerce asked Browne to dress up in a Santa suit and light the city's Christmas tree, he couldn't turn down the request.
"I've always liked Santa, but it's not the kind of thing you decide to go out and be," Browne said.
The Chamber's annual Christmas celebration brings Santa into town on an antique fire truck to light the city Christmas tree, and has grown as popular as Santa himself. Less than a month ago, Browne arrived to an estimated crowd of 500 children and adults.
"It has grown into something really great," Browne said of the community celebration. After this year's tree lighting, he handed out more than 470 candy canes one per person.
The appearances Browne made as Santa Claus increased over the years as well. On Saturday mornings, during the holiday season, he visited downtown businesses to the delight of children. And that's not to mention the appearances he has made for Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, daycares, hospitals, nursing homes, doctor's offices and families.
"It kind of evolved," Browne admitted. "I think it was word of mouth. I don't solicit. I don't advertise. People just say 'Gary is Santa.'"
Over the years, Browne has learned how children view Santa Claus. There are children who get excited to see Santa, and there are children who think Santa is a little scary. That's when Santa's personality comes in.
"You don't force it too much, especially on the real young," Browne said. "I'm truly a stranger to them. You have to be gentle, and you have to move slow."
When he talks to children, he tells them the importance of being good. He also listens to their Christmas wishes. Browne said he has only made one promise in response to a wish and that wish came true.
"I told a young boy that his wish would most definitely come true," Browne said. " He wished to be adopted, and he was.
"All the kids sit on my lap and tell me what they want, but that's the only time I have promised. I tell them I will make sure they have a merry Christmas."
Browne is even Santa Claus to his family wife, Kathy, and children, Lauren and Cole.
"They believe that I am," Browne said. "They believe I illustrate the spirit of Santa. Somebody everywhere has to do that."
What that spirit brings to people is important, Browne said.
"My interpretation of who and what Santa illustrates is simply the spirit of giving and goodness," Browne said. "When people stop believing in Santa, then they start forgetting about the spirit of giving and that is an important thing to keep going."
Browne is confident someone with a giving spirit will put on Santa's suit next year and in the years to come.
He knows a Santa suit can last a long time he has worn the same one for 18 years.
"It has had lots of repairs," Browne said.
The decision to retire as Santa has been a thought in Browne's mind since having a heart attack. He says he doesn't want something like that to happen again when he's with children who think he is the real Santa.
"I have every faith someone will step forward and do it," Browne said. "I will miss it a lot, but I have a lot of memories to hold me over."