In a cabin nestled way in the back of the Santa Claus Christmas Store in Santa Claus, Ind., jolly old Saint Nicholas greets passersby and welcomes children young and old to take a photo on Santa’s knee.
A family enters the room: mom, dad and twin three-year-old sisters in matching red dresses made the drive from Bloomington to meet the Big Man himself in his own town.
The girls hid behind their parents’ legs, but after a few genuine “ho, ho, ho”’s and a candy cane apiece, they were on Santa’s knees talking about what they wanted for Christmas.
The charming personality and Santa Claus mannerisms don’t turn off when Don Dauscha is away from the adoring — if a bit reluctant — children. The long white beard, gold-framed spectacles, red and white garb and distinctive laugh define Dauscha.
Don is Kris Kringle, St. Nicholas, Father Christmas, Santa Claus. Whatever you want to call him, he is the man.
For Don, Christmas season doesn’t come just once a year.
“I get to celebrate Christmas every day,” Don said. “I get to be blessed to be Santa, to spread that joy 365 days a year.”
But his job at the Christmas Store is more than a way to pay the bills. Don has already paid off his car and his house in Corydon, Ind., so when he puts on the big boots and the gold-buckled belt, it’s all for more than a paycheck.
“The love you get back when you make a lot of people happy,” he said. “There’s no greater joy.”
Don hasn’t always worn bright red pants to work, but he has been a sort of Santa figure for quite some time.
He used to work for a medical supply company, making deliveries throughout Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee, but that was back when he was gray and silver, before his beard had changed to the snow white it is now.
“I would have my hat on and glasses,” he said. “The company I worked for made sure someone took care of my stuff so I could interact with the people.”
But then he was laid off in October 2009. The company he had been working for had to make cutbacks, and Don was one of the people who lost his job.
“That’s when Santa Claus took over,” he said.
Don had done Santa gigs before, but never anything similar to the long-term position he now has at the Christmas Store, where he works nearly all year long and almost every day.
“I’m pretty much Santa 24/7,” he said.
Even in his time off, Don parades the streets in his Kris Kringle attire or volunteers to spread Christmas cheer.
“Nursing homes are some of the best places,” he said. “Santa walks in there, and they are just like kids again. They tell me they’re already chomping at the bit for me to get there.”
That’s because Santa Claus transcends generational boundaries.
“An 86-year-old lady came in here on her birthday,” Don said. “It was the first time she sat on Santa’s lap.”
When he’s off duty — although Don said he doesn’t like to think he’s ever off duty — he works on remodeling his house or engages in his favorite pastime.
“Santa only has to be Santa, but besides that Santa likes to fish,” he said. “Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee is my favorite.”
Before Don assumed his current role, he was in the U.S. Marine Corps.
He was in a car accident in 1977 in Virginia. and the doctors told him he would not walk again.
But Don proved the doctors wrong.
“I was out of the service in ’78, and I ran a mini-marathon in ’79,” he said. “A lot of people will just let themselves lay there and be waited on. I’m not like that.”
That’s a mindset that has continued on into his retirement.
While some people decide to take time off and relax, Don has dedicated his time to putting smiles on children’s faces.
“I like to be out in public a lot,” Don said. “The kids are all thrilled to death to see Santa.”
When he tells the story of a shy little girl who came to the store with her family, his face lights up.
“She stood back there and had an innocent smile on her face,” he said. “Sometimes candy canes are miracle workers. When I asked her what she wanted for Christmas, she said, ‘You know, I sure would like it if all the other boys and girls can get what I can ... you know, the less fortunate ones.’”
Don has lots of these stories. It’s all part of the job, although, he makes it clear that to him being Santa is not a job.
In fact, throughout time, Santa has simply become a part of Don’s life. He said his persona and that of the Santa character have become one.
He said a different Santa once came to his granddaughter’s school.
“She went up there and said, ‘No, that is not Santa Claus. My pa-paw is Santa Claus,’” Don said.
Because of that public image, this Santa takes his actions very seriously. He said he’s careful about everything he says and does because he does not want to ruin St. Nick’s reputation.
That’s why he said it’s important for him to care about being Santa more than it just being a job.
“Too many don’t do it from their hearts.”
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