ry Different Sort of Santa By BUZZ McCLAIN Special to the Washington Post II t has all the trimmings of a classic Christmas story. It involves an orphan who grew up to be the father of nine, a 51-year-old man who spends every Christmas Eve in Southeast D.C. dispensing I gifts from the trunk of his car, a garden supplies vendor who staunchly refuses to allow his name to be published, a devout Christian who has touched the lives of thousands of children . . . and who else but Santa Claus himself.
It involves one man.
At last count, there were hundreds of red-suited Santas posing for Polaroids in the malls and shopping centers of the Washington area. But for many Northern Virginians, those counterfeit Clauses may as well hang up their cotton beards. For them there is only one Santa, ever since he came from the cold northlands of Buffalo 15 years ago. ("My 'children' are now bringing their children to see us," he says with a chuckle.)
Your average Santa Claus can't begin to imagine the reaction this one evokes. The children who visit his "igloo" are reverent, respectful (no beard tuggers here) and quietly excited about their Christmas-morning prospects when they leave him.. He receives cards and letters from parents, thanking him "for being so wonderful. You really do represent the true meaning of Christmas." He leaves awe-stricken "believers" asking, "Who was that masked man?"
When he calls Mayor Marion Barry's office before making his annual "toy drop," he says simply, "This is Santa calling." They put him through.
For our purposes let's call him Kris (as in Kringle). This decidedly uncommercial St. Nicholas shies away from shopping centers. For the last three seasons he has been at Burke Nursery and Garden Centre, which allows him -- in fact, helps him -- take over half its indoor space with his striking display and 8-foot-high, hand-decorated "igloo."
Kris has been portraying Santa for 37 years, since he was 14. As a Santa with a "different understanding of things," he insists that the management of wherever he spends the season "knows where I am, where I am coming from. I will not be used." Even a suggestion that this Santa announce spot sales will compel him to walk out.
"Out of uniform," as he puts it, Kris resembles one of the toy-maker elves more than the big man himself. About 5 feet 8 and 120 pounds, he has a shock of white hair that's as soft as his voice. His most distinguishing feature is his large eyes, which appear even more sensitive when peering from beneath the red cap and over the flowing white whiskers.
During the rest of the year Kris sells garden supplies for a distributor, but beginning each Nov. 1 he works part-time building the igloo where he receives young visitors from Thanksgiving through Dec. 23. He does not "work" on Christmas Eve because, he says with a smile, "That's my day." On Dec. 24 Kris takes carloads of donated toys to ("I suppose the word is destitute") neighborhoods of the District and, in costume, hands them out to children. In the evening he visits homes for the elderly in Northern Virginia to lead rounds of caroling.
In these days of pre-fab, photo-booth thrones for Santas in modern malls, Kris's hand-decorated chamber at the nursery is a bit of an anachronism. Still, it is wonderfully ornate, with its black-plastic heaven strung with multicolored "stars," the nativity scene (frequently a bed for the nursery's resident cat), a yule log, garlands of tinsel and dozens of dangling ornaments he has collected over the years. The entrance to the igloo is a child-high tunnel, leading into a high-ceilinged, circular room furnished with an antique French sleigh, the requisite nativity crib and a Styrofoam sphere of lollipops. ("You never give candy canes," Kris admonishes. "They don't have handles. Suckers have handles, you see.") There is a photo booth, but snapshots taken by one of Santa's elves are optional and personal cameras are welcome. "Take your time," Kris says as he poses with a visitor. "I belong to the public."
At the igloo entrance stands one unadorned tree. A sign explains that it "remains barren and unlit . . . in dedication to those who are orphans, refugees, disaster struck, homeless or poor. The pine cones . . . symbolize the seeds of hope for a better life. There is a tomorrow and we can all help make it a little better for someone somewhere."
The sign asks that used or new toys be placed beneath the tree and says "Santa will find a home or children in need of them." The gifts left under the tree are those Kris takes into the District on Christmas Eve.
"My first day there's usually a little toy; the next day there are maybe two or three things. Then all of a sudden it snowballs so that the toys are knee deep," Kris says. "I have to take some out from underneath to make space for more."
But, Kris says, "Kids are kids. They will bring in coloring books that have already been colored, and puzzles that you know there are only seven pieces in the box and there should be a hundred and seven . . . but you can't get upset about that; they're not doing it on purpose."
It's the spirit that counts, and that is what Christmas is all about to Kris, his wife and their nine children, who live in Annandale.
Along with the lollipops and the visions of sugarplums Kris gives his visitors, he also hands each one a small "holy card" depicting Joseph, Mary and the newborn Jesus. Without lecturing or preaching, he quietly reminds the children and their parents of what Christmas is intended to celebrate. He is given to saying, "Santa is the clown of Christmas; Christ is the reason."
"If you were to erase this Christian holiday off the calendar of December, there would be a lot of merchants closing their doors, no question about that," Kris says. "It's a sad state of affairs.
"But Santa Claus, the way I'm trying to do it, is just reinforcing Christmas. Christ has given us some of the best gifts one could ever expect to get -- and those things are not tangible, they're not material. I'm trying to say, 'Hey look, the material things you may get, but there's something more important than that.' And I'm trying to use that individual, Santa Claus, to do that for me."
Inside the igloo it is warm and cozy -- perhaps a bit Claus-trophobic. When it is finally your turn to speak with Santa, you do it standing up, not sitting on his lap.
"They stand before me on their own two feet," Kris explains. "That's how you communicate. You don't pet that child like a puppy and say 'You're a good little boy.' How do you know? You're patronizing that child.
"They stand up in front of me and we talk, one on one. He can look me in the eye and I can look him in the eye.
"Besides that," Kris says with a characteristic chuckle, "the real reason is the parent is over there behind the child. When he asks for a bike, I can see if that's what he's going to get by watching for the high sign. I can help that boy out by keeping him from being disappointed."