Epiphany parishioner brings faith, fun to his role as Santa

| December 16, 2019 | 0 Comments

Bob Mathewson visits a classroom in his role as Santa Claus at St. Ambrose of Woodbury’s Early Childhood Education Center Dec. 4. DAVE HRBACEK | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

Bob Mathewson got a celebrity’s welcome at St. Ambrose of Woodbury Catholic School the morning of Dec. 4.

All it took were three simple words:

“Ho ho ho.”

Well, the bright red velvet suit and white beard had a little something to do with it, too.

Not to mention the bell jingling in his hand. As he made his way across the parking lot, a group of students just outside one of the school doors caught sight of him. They erupted in cheers as they hustled toward him.

Santa had arrived. In more than two decades of portraying the jolly gift giver, Mathewson, 59, appears to be a perfect replica, complete with a handmade suit, white hair and a real beard, plus a robust laugh made extra jolly from hundreds of gigs, skill building at Santa schools and a heart for bringing joy — plus the true meaning of Christmas — to children.

He delivers this message intentionally to as many audiences as he can, most explicitly with a custom made belt buckle displaying the Nativity scene. He had it hand painted with bright colors so it would stand out against his red velvet suit.

On this day, he traveled across the Twin Cities from his home in Coon Rapids, taking a day off from his job in cemetery operations and maintenance at Epiphany in Coon Rapids. The pastor of Epiphany, Father Thomas Dufner, is happy to provide the flexibility in Mathewson’s schedule so he can go out into the community and bring Christmas cheer.

“Bob was born to be Santa Claus,” Father Dufner said. “He’s got the build for it, he’s got the beard for it, he’s got the joy for it. And, he loves the Lord and he loves the little kids.”

Bob Mathewson as Santa Claus gets his picture taken with a preschooler at St. Ambrose of Woodbury’s Early Childhood Education Center. DAVE HRBACEK | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

And, they love him. Smiles and looks of awe and wonder lit up the faces of around 80 preschoolers at St. Ambrose’s Early Childhood Education Center as they gathered to meet him and bring up toys they had brought in to donate to St. Joseph’s Home for Children in Minneapolis. ECEC Director Anne Huber wants the children, ranging from infants to 5-year-olds, to understand the importance of giving. She could think of no better person to deliver that message than Mathewson, whom she discovered five years ago and instantly knew he was a great fit for her school.

“We did have a Santa prior to this,” said Huber, who has been the director since the center opened in 2000. “It was wonderful, it was fun, but we didn’t feel like it was always as strong of a connection for doing what we do with the toys and with what we’re trying to teach the kids.”

Huber said Mathewson comes in “ready to engage the kids on their level” and “teach the kids “that it’s not about getting gifts, but giving gifts.” That can be a hard lesson for kids this young, she said, but Mathewson is effective at getting the point across. It’s one reason she keeps inviting him back.

Before she met Mathewson, a parent of one of her preschoolers had seen him, liked him and recommended him. Huber decided to give him a try, and has invited him back every year since.

“We just love him,” Huber said. “He’s so good with the kids. He’s trying to serve the same purpose we are, and that is spreading the joy in trying to help others.”

Mathewson’s role as Santa began at a Davanni’s restaurant in the late 1980s. A store assistant manager at the time, he was asked to play Santa at a company party.

He was “kind of shy” then, he said, but accepted the invitation. Though he did not yet have the white hair and beard, he possessed something perhaps greater.

“He had the jollyness,” said his wife, Nancy, who plays Mrs. (“Nana”) Claus occasionally.

His next time in a red suit didn’t come for another 10 years. He was hired at Epiphany in 1997 and was recruited to play Santa at a Christmas party for fourth-graders.

“The principal was supposed to be dressed up as Santa Claus,” said Mathewson,an Epiphany parishioner. “They rented him an outfit. Well, he decided he didn’t want to do Santa Claus. And, someone said that I’d make a good one.”

Again, he stepped forward, though not without a protest. At first, he told his boss, the operations manager, he “had work to do” and wouldn’t have time to be St. Nick. Fortunately for the fourth-graders, and hundreds of children since, Mathewson’s boss persuaded him to deck the school’s halls as Santa Claus.

Little did either of them know that it would lead to more than 20 years worth of smiles and candy canes spread throughout the Twin Cities. The joy on the kids’ faces, and the joy he felt inside, led him to decide “this is something that I wanted to pursue and do more of.”

Mathewson built his Santa skills and reputation over the next two-plus decades, and now books more than 60 appearances annually. Most of them take place from the end of October through Christmas Eve. Some are for Catholic audiences, many are not.

A key part of his portrayal of Santa, and what people like Huber believe sets him apart, is his passion for expressing the true meaning of Christmas — the birth of Christ. He tailors that message to his audience, using the warmth of his role to make that truth attractive and inviting.

“We talk about how grateful we are,” said Mathewson, who became Catholic in 2000 and is a fourth-degree member of the Knights of Columbus. “There’s a little thing I do once in a while. I tell them not only God loves them, but Santa and Mrs. Claus do, too.”

He connects the gift giving of the Christmas season to the gifts the Magi gave to the infant Jesus, and to the gift Jesus is to all of humanity.

“I’m not afraid to show what my belief is,” he said, noting that most of the response to this has been positive.

Mathewson has honed his craft over the years by attending Santa schools and conventions, rubbing velvet shoulders with up to 100 Kris Kringles at a time. He rates himself “a seven or eight” on his skill and appearance in playing the role, and now mentors Santa beginners, including someone doing it for the first time this year.

One of the keys to his success is a deep belly laugh that expresses on the outside what he feels on the inside. Sometimes, the red suit transforms his own mood.

“I can be feeling down, I can be feeling under the weather,” he said. “And, I put on that suit, and it’s like I’m a totally different person.”

His focus is on bringing joy to all who come, from age 2 to 92. He gets so engrossed in playing Santa that he doesn’t feel the sweat running down his back and soaking his outfit during appearances that can last up to four or five hours.

Some of his treasured moments have taken place in nursing homes. He remembers one elderly woman jumping out of her wheelchair to dance with him. He remembers another woman, who had dementia, getting her picture taken with him and remembering him years later, even when she had trouble recognizing her own family members.

“Those little moments make everything I do worthwhile,” he said. He makes sure to greet each person in the room. At St. Ambrose, he spent more than two hours, well past his allotted time, to make sure every child got the chance to come forward and meet him. And, his “ho ho hos” remained boisterous to the end.

“Usually, my problem is I spend too much time with the kids,” he said. “I want to make sure each kid feels important.”

Nicole Albrecht, left, talks with Bob Mathewson to let him know his prayers the previous year for her were answered. She asked for a baby, and is due in February. DAVE HRBACEK | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

Same for adults. At last year’s event at St. Ambrose, Nicole Albrecht, the ECEC’s administrative assistant, took her turn telling Santa what she wanted for Christmas: A baby. She and her husband, Dan, had been trying to have a child for nearly nine years. Mathewson handed her a doll and said he would pray for her.

He did, and it worked. This year, when he walked into the school, Albrecht couldn’t wait to tell him that she is pregnant and due in February.

“He’s a miracle,” Albrecht said of Mathewson. “He gave me my blessing. I should have asked him a long time ago.”

For Mathewson, this is at the center of portraying Santa Claus. Underneath the red suit lies a desire to spread the joy of the Christmas season — and its Christian meaning.

He has no plans to stop playing Santa, perhaps becoming more and more like the one he portrays.

“It’s hard for me to describe because it’s just me,” he said of the laughs, the smiles and the high-fives he likes to give children. “I feel peaceful doing it. It’s not the best ‘ho ho ho’ every time.”

But, it has a quality Mrs. Claus summed up in one word:

“Heart.”

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