Heidi Britt: Truck driver by day, mall Santa by night

Heidi Britt
Heidi Britt

As you can imagine, Santa Claus is busy this time of year. A few days ago I caught up with him on the Mexican border. He was driving a big rig with a haul of tomatoes, destined for the Central Valley.

On his drivers' license, this particular Santa is known as Thomas Cole. He is a 55-year-old truck driver by day, mall Santa by night, with a "real beard, real hair, real belly," all of which he has been cultivating and growing for years.

Cole usually spends the holidays in contract with a large department store. This year, he's a free agent, and is dedicating his time to various smaller places, like the University Pet Resort on Yosemite Avenue and The Frog Shop.

Last year, Cole spent most of his busy season seeing kids at the Bass Pro Shop in Manteca. How many kids does he typically see each year?

"I'll tell you this much, last year at Bass Pro Shop I saw 12,650 kids," he says. "That should give you clue."

In his six years as Santa, he estimates he has seen 20,000 kids, probably more.

Seems like an awful lot of young'uns sitting on his lap. Kids cry. They're messy (even smelly sometimes). Why does he keep doing it year after year?

"For the enjoyment," he says. "I'm just a big kid myself. The reactions I get from the children as well as the elderly."

Besides department stores, Cole has visited retirement homes, children's hospitals and the Christian Life Center in Merced, where he says he got his start.

Over the years, he has seen

all ages, from 98 years old to

2 days old. In that case, Cole says, the baby's parents brought their little one straight from the hospital to see him.

"It's amazing they trust a

newborn baby to Santa like that," he says.

But they do. It's not just kids who look up to Santa, their

parents and grandparents seem to hold in awe as well.

"It's everybody," he said.

"Everybody's attitude seems to change when they come around Santa. It's funny how people watch what they do, and what they say. They take Santa as an authority figure. When you've heard them talk a certain way before they get in front of you, their attitude is different (when they talk to Santa). It's almost a fear of offending."

Or maybe it's a respect that's left over from their own childhoods. Respect for that magical feeling called the Christmas

spirit. The feeling that maybe Santa is real, that magical things can happen and that miracles can occur.

It makes sense that even adults are looking for something to instill in them that kind of awe, especially if you consider how hard life is for so many

families. The commercial excess that compels families to spend money this time of year can be really hard on those who are

financially strapped. And the

holidays are the worst time of year for families who are missing a loved one. It's especially hard on the kids.

"I've had so many of them ask for me to bring their father, mother or brother home from Iraq, from the war," Cole says. "Or you have a child ask for someone to come back, that has died. Some kids have asked for pets to come back, or their grandparents."

Even as Santa, Cole may not have the power to bring loved ones home, but he does have something that's pretty amazing. He has the ability to brighten someone's day by just being there.

When kids young and old visit Santa, Cole says, he can see the looks on their faces change in front of him.

"It's helping them no matter what they're going through," he says. "It can take anybody out of a tough time."

No matter what age we are, we could all use a little extra cheer in our lives.

From noon to 2 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 18, "Santa" Cole will be

visiting The Frog Shop on Main Street. Free child or family

portraits will be available. The free portraits are being donated by Becca Hamilton Photography and Parent Resource Association of Merced.

Heidi Britt is a grant writer and co-founder of the Parent Resource Association of Merced. Six kids and counting call her variations of the word Mom.