As “The Suit,” Buzzards Bay man is Santa for hire
Santa Claus’s arms are covered in tattoos. There is a phoenix rising from the ashes, the words “carpe diem” (Latin for “seize the day”) and a pig, representing his love of pork.
Santa Claus is a chef, and his food truck, Milo’s Pickle Jar, is parked in front of his house.
His bushy white beard is real, and covered in glitter. He likes to say that it’s “reindeer dust,” from when Blitzen sneezed on him. The hair on his head is short and brown, covered by a red hat that he knitted himself. For most of the year, he sports a four-inch mohawk.
Cut out sugar cookies are his favorite, preferably made by a child, so he knows “it came from the heart,” and served with a cold glass of whole milk.
Christmas Eve is his least favorite day of the year, because it’s the last day he gets to visit children. He plans to spend Christmas Day with his parents and mother-in-law.
In his spare time, Santa Claus can be found shopping at Shaw’s or eating at the Wareham House of Pizza. He says that summers here are much warmer than back at the North Pole, but the winters here are even colder.
Santa Claus is 39-year-old Eric Shade, but he likes it when you call him Santa. For the last five years, Shade has spread Christmas cheer to Wareham and beyond, but when he’s in the red suit, he doesn’t feel like he’s acting. He feels like he is Santa.
“I’ve always loved Christmas,” he said. “The feeling of family being together. [Santa]’s the symbol of that. If you become the thing you love, you never have to live without it.”
Shade’s home in Buzzards Bay, where he lives with his wife, Diane Gomes (he thinks she’d make a great Mrs. Claus), and two sons, is as warm and cozy as one would expect Santa’s house to be.
Stockings he knitted are hung by the fire, so big that they reach halfway to the ground. His living room is decorated with twinkling lights, trees and, of course, lots of Santas.
He has a copy of a book entitled “How to Be Santa Claus,” but he has never read it. The book he swears by is “Becoming Santa Claus,” the story of “a businessman who decided he was bored and wanted to do something different for the holidays.”
Shade can relate to the story.
“I consider myself an average Joe who is given the opportunity to be Santa Claus,” he said.
Some of his decorations, such as a Santa Claus carved by his grandfather, stay up all year. Growing up in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, Shade’s grandfather would dress as Santa and visit him every Christmas. These visits sparked his lifelong fascination with the jolly old elf.
When he was in college, Shade auditioned to play Santa at his local mall, but was turned away for being too young.
“I realized that I was pretty good at it,” he said, “and I loved doing it, and I’ve ran with it ever since.”
He was at the now-closed Eastern Bank on Main Street in Wareham, taking out a loan for his food truck, when bank manager Rose Berry struck up a conversation about Santa Claus. She decided to let him be Santa at the bank’s Christmas open house that year.
“They acted like kids,” he said about the bank’s customers. “They still wanted to sit on Santa’s lap, give him a high-five, give him a hug. They all wanted a candy cane. It doesn’t matter how old you are. Everyone wants to be a kid at Christmas.”
Shade’s first time playing Santa was so “magical” that he didn’t mind working for free. It even snowed that night.
“I got wet, but it was awesome,” he said.
Since then, Shade has often asked himself, WWSD — What would Santa do? He whistles carols in April. When he’s feeling sad in May, he listens to Christmas music to cheer himself up.
“I love Christmas in July,” he said. “If I could do Christmas every day, I probably would.”
July is when he starts growing the beard for December’s gigs. On gigsalad.com, he’s a Santa-for-hire known simply as “The Suit” (he wanted to stand out from everyone who just called themselves Santa). One of his profile photos shows him fully-suited, posing provocatively on a lounge chair.
He often makes “house calls” to homes in Wareham and throughout eastern Massachusetts, but lately, he has been one of the full-time Santas for the Cape Cod Central Railroad’s Polar Express Train Ride.
It’s hard work with long hours, requiring him to interact with 150-200 children per trip. His reward is seeing children run to hug him with “a twinkle in their eye,” or share drawings they made for him. A hug from a child to Santa Claus, he said, is unlike any hug you’ll ever receive.
“First and foremost, you have to be magical,” he said. “You have to show up knowing that you are everything that kid has been looking for. You’re the present they’ve always wanted. There’s nothing above you, so you cannot be a disappointment.”
On the Polar Express, Shade must give every child equal attention, though there are always the ones who “really need a hug that day.”
When kids get rowdy, he must “kill them with kindness.”
He must have perfect timing and a gift for improv, answering every question and gift request, no matter how outlandish. Recently, a 6-year-old asked him for a truck and a wood chipper.
Kids often ask Shade why he looks younger than other Santas they see. Sometimes, they ask him to cure a family member’s illness, or bring them back to life.
“Sorry, but Santa doesn’t have the magic to bring them back,” he tells them. “But as Santa is in your heart, you keep them in your heart, and that’s how they live on.”
“Santa is real,” he said, remembering those times, “and Santa is human. Santa cries too.”
Tom Hanks’s performance in the 2006 “Polar Express” movie is Shade’s favorite portrayal of Santa. Every year, when the first snow falls, he watches the movie with his sons to help him get into character.
“He’s not the fat Coca-Cola Santa,” he said. “He’s tall-standing, proud. ‘I’m here, I’m Santa, this is me right now.’ It’s a strong portrayal.”
That is the kind of Santa that Shade wants to be.
Every night after the last train ride, he sits and chats with his fellow Santas, swapping stories and sharing tips and tricks of the trade.
“I’ll always be getting better,” he said.
Shade believes that the legend of Santa has endured because it is a story of goodness and redemption, offering an escape from the weary world. Santa always has your back, he said, and there is always a chance to go from the naughty list to the nice list.
“I still fully believe that there is the spirit of Santa Claus out there,” he said, “that people are truly good.”