New England Santa Camp: Where the region's Santas and Mrs. Clauses get their training

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Dianne Grenier had just finished a gig as Mrs. Claus, and she was hungry. Still dressed in her red and white garb and accompanied by her Santa partner of the day, they stopped at a local pizza joint for a late dinner.

In walked a mother and four children picking up a pizza. An interaction with Santa and Mrs. Claus ensued, naturally. Candy canes and little bells were gifted.

"We talked a long time with them," Grenier remembers, "and come to find out they were just coming from their father's wake."

The death was sudden, the mother told Grenier, and unexpectedly seeing Santa and Mrs. Claus was "the perfect thing the children needed that day."

Dianne Grenier, also known as Mrs. Merry Claus, is a founding member of both the Connecticut Society of Santas and New England Santa Society.
Dianne Grenier, also known as Mrs. Merry Claus, is a founding member of both the Connecticut Society of Santas and New England Santa Society.

It was an unplanned, magical moment, one that joins countless others in Grenier's experience as "Mrs. Merry Claus" − a role the Andover, Connecticut resident stumbled into after retiring in 2006. She's helped 90-year-olds sit on Santa's lap for the very first time, read aloud "The Night Before Christmas" to nursing home residents and ridden the zamboni at the Hartford Civic Center. In a wardrobe collected from JCPenney, Target and various tag sales, she's greeted guests at the Connecticut governor's residence during the holidays.

Grenier said most of the Santas and Mrs. Clauses she knows "seem to have been born with a string of Christmas lights around their heart."

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"You sweep people off into this magical land of flying reindeer and a fat little old man going down the chimney," she said. "You just spin these tales and you have them wide-eyed and believing every word you're telling them. It's the joy you bring to these people, and you never know whose life you've touched in what way."

How did Grenier learn, in her own words, to "lie her pants off" every December, and do it so well? An annual gathering in rural New Hampshire might hold the answers.

Connecticut's Dianne Grenier, who plays Mrs. Merry Claus every holiday season, is pictured riding on a zamboni and waving to fans.
Connecticut's Dianne Grenier, who plays Mrs. Merry Claus every holiday season, is pictured riding on a zamboni and waving to fans.

New England Santa Camp: 'My favorite thing on the face of the Earth'

Picture a quintessential New England summer camp experience, but replace cabins with a conference center and the campers with Santas, Mrs. Clauses and elves. There might not be any snow in August, but "ho-ho-ho's" and jingle bells echo throughout the grounds for three days each year.

"It's my favorite thing on the face of the Earth," said Susan Roberts, a Mrs. Claus who lives in Wakefield, Massachusetts.

New England Santa Camp has been held for seven summers in Greenfield, New Hampshire. It's a school, essentially, where people put the "finishing touches" on their personas and learn how to run professional businesses as the beloved Christmas legends.

New England Santa Camp has convened for seven summers in Greenfield, New Hampshire. Pictured is the 2022 cohort.
New England Santa Camp has convened for seven summers in Greenfield, New Hampshire. Pictured is the 2022 cohort.

Santa Camp is not a tourist attraction, said Grenier, who is a founding member of the New England Santa Society. It's serious business. Attendees learn about taxes, insurance, where to buy Santa suits and how to get them cleaned. They learn about bleaching beards, designer beards, and how to communicate with children in sign language and Spanish. Gone are the days of Craigslist advertisements − websites and social media are a must for professional Santas and Mrs. Clauses.

Dan Greenleaf, co-founder of the New England Santa Society and resident of Manchester, New Hampshire, said Santa Camp gives attendees "a strong foundation to understand the role they play."

"It brings home the importance of representing Santa carefully," he said. "He is an icon. He represents some very important things. Love, giving, joy, being nice to people. There is that responsibility when you become a Claus."

New England Santa Camp is a three-day program to train Santas, Mrs. Clauses and elves. The camp is held every summer at the Barbara C. Harris Camp & Conference Center in Greenfield, New Hampshire.
New England Santa Camp is a three-day program to train Santas, Mrs. Clauses and elves. The camp is held every summer at the Barbara C. Harris Camp & Conference Center in Greenfield, New Hampshire.

The camp's roundtable discussions provide some of the biggest lessons learned. "They throw out a topic like, 'How do you handle this situation? Some little kid asks, 'Can you bring back Grandpa?'" said Grenier.

Roberts, who attended Santa Camp for the first time three years ago, said attendees learn "how to do things properly," like answering tough questions, finding the right wardrobe and keeping your back story consistent because you might see the same people year after year.

"Children have absolutely amazing senses of remembering certain things," she said.

Santa scholars have made lasting friendships and many come back to camp every summer, while also meeting up throughout the year at suppers and reunions.

Pictured at New England Santa Camp are staffers Susan Roberts, of Wakefield, Massachusetts, and Barbara Foristall, of Merrimack, New Hampshire.
Pictured at New England Santa Camp are staffers Susan Roberts, of Wakefield, Massachusetts, and Barbara Foristall, of Merrimack, New Hampshire.

New England Santa Camp gets attention from HBO Max documentary

The camp recently drew national attention as the subject of an HBO Max documentary titled "Santa Camp," where a film crew documented the experiences of a diverse slate of attendees at the 2021 camp − a Black Santa, transgender Santa and a Santa with disabilities.

Greenleaf said Santa Claus is evolving, the idea that "people can have a Santa that looks like them or identifies with what they're going through," not just older, white men.

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But, as shown in the film, it hasn't come without some discomfort and varying opinions − from internal squabbles at the camp, to more outward public displays of protest, like members of the Proud Boys descending on a church event where "the Trans Santa," as he calls himself, was appearing.

Dan Greenleaf, of Manchester, New Hampshire, is the president of the New England Santa Society.
Dan Greenleaf, of Manchester, New Hampshire, is the president of the New England Santa Society.

Since the documentary went live, Greenleaf said they've received positive responses from around the world − people touched by the different representations of Santa Claus and what the camp stands for. A man with epilepsy had been debating whether he should still be Santa or not, and the film encouraged him to continue. A woman shared the story of her father, a Black man who was a huge fan of Christmas, "and the whole idea of having a Santa that could look like her was such a moving thing, it motivated her to become Mrs. Claus herself," Greenleaf said.

The New England Santa Society is seeing more traction on Facebook than ever before, fielding numerous inquiries from people asking when they can sign up for the 2023 Santa Camp.

Diana and Dan Greenleaf, Mrs. Claus and Santa, are pictured at the premiere of the HBO Max documentary called "Santa Camp."
Diana and Dan Greenleaf, Mrs. Claus and Santa, are pictured at the premiere of the HBO Max documentary called "Santa Camp."

It's all about the 'golden' moments for Rhode Island Santa and Mrs. Claus

Steve and Marybeth Earle of North Kingstown, Rhode Island, are two-time New England Santa Camp attendees, a journey that began with a single Santa suit just meant to entertain their grandchildren.

After expanding to neighborhood gatherings and a conversation with a local car mechanic "with a great beard," the Earles started thinking more seriously about Santa and Mrs. Claus. Marybeth's background in nursing and elementary education made it a "natural transition," she said, while Steve still works full-time in health care IT. When he retires, he hopes to hit the Santa game even harder.

Santa Claus, Rhode Island resident Steve Earle, gets a parting hug from 4-year-old Hunter Potrzeba and 3-year-old Nyasia Sargent, during an event at the Christ Church in East Greenwich, RI. Earle and his wife Marybeth are a professional Santa and Mrs. Claus duo.
Santa Claus, Rhode Island resident Steve Earle, gets a parting hug from 4-year-old Hunter Potrzeba and 3-year-old Nyasia Sargent, during an event at the Christ Church in East Greenwich, RI. Earle and his wife Marybeth are a professional Santa and Mrs. Claus duo.

"I really think Santa represents unconditional love and kindness and generosity," Steve said. "And I think children of a certain age identify that with Santa. To see the wonder in their faces. For many of them, Santa is a symbol of someone they innately feel that they can trust."

While children become adults and their views change, many still hold fond memories of Santa Claus close. "We still carry this warm feeling inside of us because we were inspired by the positive attributes we saw in Santa," Steve said.

One of his favorite memories is being Santa Claus at the group home where his 43-year-old daughter with disabilities lives. He called that "particularly special."

Santa Claus, Rhode Island resident Steve Earle, chats with visiting children while at the Christ Church in East Greenwich.
Santa Claus, Rhode Island resident Steve Earle, chats with visiting children while at the Christ Church in East Greenwich.

During her time in education, Marybeth often worked with students who spoke different languages. Because words weren't a common connection between them, she had to "convey kindness they can feel," something she later carried into her role as Mrs. Claus.

"A lot of it, you just can't teach it," said Marybeth. "It becomes an innate part of your personality. It's a genuine thing. Steve has it, it's what drew me to him, and I think it's what drew him to me. It's when you walk in a room and can feel the vibe."

Kids can sense sincerity and honesty, and they get particularly hung up on fairness. Marybeth capitalizes on body language, gesturing, "getting down with them eye-to-eye and also being a really good listener."

Santa Claus, Rhode Island resident Steve Earle, chats with 9-year-old Rylee Mangione, of North Kingstown, Rhode Island, at the Christ Church in East Greenwich. Earle and his wife Marybeth are a professional Santa and Mrs. Claus duo.
Santa Claus, Rhode Island resident Steve Earle, chats with 9-year-old Rylee Mangione, of North Kingstown, Rhode Island, at the Christ Church in East Greenwich. Earle and his wife Marybeth are a professional Santa and Mrs. Claus duo.

"Sometimes just being quiet in the moment says volumes," she said. "Parents can see and feel it when there is a moment that is just golden. These tender moments that people remember."

While the path to the North Pole is different for everyone in this field, many of them do have things in common − such as experience in theater, education and charity work. Most of them were originally given a Santa suit or Mrs. Claus apron at one point or another as a gimmick, or for a singular event with family, friends or coworkers.

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For Roberts, who comes from a theater background including Emerson College's Majestic Theater and Boston Children's Theater, it's about "working the room." She recalled an event at a country club where, while mingling with families, she met a young boy who was doing daily acts of kindness at school and reporting back to his parents each day.

"I said, 'I have to get Santa over here to hear about this,'" said Roberts, who often reads aloud "The Night before Christmas in Massachusetts," an adaptation featuring specific towns and counties.

Susan Roberts, of Wakefield, Massachusetts, is also known as Mrs. Claus. She has been a longtime member of the New England Santa Society.
Susan Roberts, of Wakefield, Massachusetts, is also known as Mrs. Claus. She has been a longtime member of the New England Santa Society.

Vermont Santa Claus with a 'superpower'

Barre, Vermont resident Fin Ciappara has a starring role in the HBO Max film alongside his mother, Suki Ciappara.

Born with a rare form of spina bifida, Fin, 32, is mostly non-verbal and communicates via "text-to-talk" on an iPad. He's been a professional Santa in the central Vermont area since 2016, embodying the holiday spirit and all things Claus. It started with a Santa suit gift when he worked at a daycare about a decade ago.

Pictured are mother and son duo Suki and Fin Ciappara, from Barre, Vermont. They were recently featured in an HBO Max documentary about New England Santa Camp.
Pictured are mother and son duo Suki and Fin Ciappara, from Barre, Vermont. They were recently featured in an HBO Max documentary about New England Santa Camp.

"It makes people happy," said Fin. "When people meet me, I want them to feel welcome."

Suki, who accompanies Fin in most of his Santa gigs as "Mama Claus," said her son for years would point to the Santa at their local mall, saying, "I want to sit there, I want to sit there."

When Fin's dream ultimately came true and he took the coveted mall seat as the big man himself, Suki said all of their friends with disabilities came − an experience where everyone felt comfortable and accepted. In that regard, they've been able to turn Fin's disability into a "superpower," she said.

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"Folks with autism, they are able to come and just relax and do whatever they like," Suki said. "When Fin puts the big suit on, he looks pretty amazing. He exudes Santa in a way."

Fin's journey to Santa Claus wasn't linear. He was rejected by several Santa schools across the country. Today, he's a graduate of the International University of Santa Claus with a degree in Santa Clausology, in addition to his New England Santa Camp experience.

Fin Ciappara, who calls himself a professional special needs Santa, is pictured participating in a past Christmas parade in Vermont riding a sleigh.
Fin Ciappara, who calls himself a professional special needs Santa, is pictured participating in a past Christmas parade in Vermont riding a sleigh.

Since "Santa Camp" was released in November, the Ciapparas have been fielding messages from all over the world. People who felt their disabilities disqualified them from being Santa were suddenly thinking twice.

The HBO Max film shows viewers the joyous day in December 2021 when Fin rode atop his sleigh through a parade in Waterbury, Vermont.

In light of the documentary, this December has proved to be Fin and Suki's busiest yet. The mayor of Barre, Vermont, contacted the family to say he'd watched the movie and wanted to give them a mayoral proclamation and keys to the city.

"Santa Fin is on a magical journey to spread joy and love and the holiday spirit," Fin said using his iPad. "Ho-ho-ho."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY NETWORK: New England Santa Camp gets big attention in HBO Max documentary