Must be SANTA!

Co-op employee carries Christmas year round on his chin and in his heart

Posted on Nov 20 2017 in Features, General

Sisters Kyra, left, and Kaiden Keough share laughs with Santa at the Center Grove High School Christmas craft fair in Johnson County in early November.

“Who’s got a beard that’s long and white?”

Larry Schuler’s got a beard that’s long and white.

“Who comes around on a special night?”

Schuler comes around on a special night … (not to mention nights, days and weeks before then, too).

“Who’s got boots and a suit of red?”

Schuler’s got boots and a suit of red.

“Who wears a long cap on his head?”

Schuler wears a long cap on his head.

Cap on head; suit that’s red; special night; beard that’s white…. Must Schuler be Santa?

That depends on whom you ask. Larry Schuler’s not saying one way or the other. But the kids, young and old, who sprang on and off Santa’s lap at a huge holiday craft fair just south of Indianapolis last month will attest that verily it had to be the real Santa in their midst.

“I’ve been here before, and I SAW him,” insisted 4-year-old Collins Napier. “He has a big beard, and he’s given me lots of presents.”

Santa’s helpers

No one is in greater demand this time of year than Santa Claus. Meeting kids at the malls and in homes, having photos taken and hearing wish lists, riding in Christmas parades, visiting hospitals and shut-ins and making TV appearances around the world can spread even the jolliest and portliest fellow pretty thin.

Everyone knows about the colony of elves at the North Pole who keep Santa and Mrs. Claus on schedule throughout November and December. But an army of volunteers stationed at all points south  also make sure Santa and the missus stay on their appointed rounds.

Two of these certified “Santa helpers” are husband and wife team Larry and Trish Schuler. The couple, high school sweethearts who’ve been married for 43 years, live in — where else? — Santa Claus, Indiana. Larry’s day job is manager of purchasing at Dubois REC in Jasper. He’s worked there 44 years. Since moving in 2015 to Santa’s company town in Spencer County, Trish has become an administrative assistant at St. Nicholas Catholic Church.

This is the sixth season the Schulers will be helping “the Claus,” spreading Christmas spirit. They have 65 appearances booked. Their farthest from home was that giant Christmas craft fair in early November near Indianapolis. Some 5,500 people passed by Santa’s chair that day.

While Larry keeps his long white beard meticulously coiffed year round to look like Santa, he said he never lets on. “When a child asks me if I’m Santa Claus, sometimes when I’m in the suit, sometimes when I’m just out and about, I’ll say, ‘Well, Santa has a lot of helpers because he can’t be everywhere. But the real Santa is out here somewhere; it’s up to you to decide who the real Santa is. I can’t tell you.’

“Children are very perceptive,” he added. “They will assess your voice, your mannerisms. They look into your eyes the whole time.”

Larry said the greatest joy for him comes when a child has sized him up and renders his or her verdict: “A lot of times, they tell me they believe I am the real Santa. I tell them that I am the ‘Spirit of Christmas.’ I represent loving and giving. And they accept that.”

While coyly dodging the direct question, if you ask Larry his age, he’ll say 61, but he might also add with a wink, “As St. Nicholas, I am 17 hundred and 47.”

Quips like that come from studying Santa lore. To further prep for the season, the Schulers attended the Charles W. Howard Santa School in Midland, Michigan, for three days in October. It was Larry’s fifth and Trish’s third trip to the internationally renowned Santa institute where Santa’s helpers brush up on all things Clausian — mannerisms, traditions, protocol and more — to portray Santa and Mrs. Claus in consistent yet natural and individual ways.

For the over 100 Santas and Mrs. Clauses who attended the 80th annual training, it’s also a chance to mentor one another and to share best practices, experiences and kinship.

Mid-life turning point

Santa and Mrs. Claus greet 8-year-old Cana Guilfoy in the foyer at Center Grove High School near Greenwood in November. The North Pole residents relied on “helpers,” Larry and Trish Schuler of Santa Claus, Indiana, to pose for photos and meet and greet folks at the craft fair attended by 5,500 people.

Larry and Trish Schuler have always loved Christmas. It was one of the things that connected them way back when they started dating at Jasper High School.

“We love snow. We love the colors and lights of Christmas … the whole idea of the first gift of Christmas — Jesus,” Larry said. “This time of year is when most people let down the barriers somewhat, and your family comes together. It’s just an enjoyable, happy time of year.”

The two always have been one of those couples that others say go overboard with the decorations. Trish said her aunt used to be the same. She had a “Christmas room” she’d leave up all year.

“I have loved Christmas since I was old enough to know what Christmas was,” Larry said. “I was lucky enough to marry someone who shared my enthusiasm for Christmas and the decorations and the trees, the whole thing of Christmas — other than Santa. That was not my thing. I didn’t have good experiences with Santa when I was a child.”

That bad experience came one Christmas Eve when Larry was around 8 and his sister was 11. Their mom arranged to have Santa visit in person. But she had to work late, leaving them with their father, a stern and sometimes emotionally abusive man, Larry said.

That afternoon, their dad told Larry and his sister they’d been bad. He cut a switch from a tree in the yard and put it by the front door. He told them that when Santa came, they could let him in. But he was going to have Santa whip them.

When Santa came that evening, he knocked and knocked. But neither Larry nor his sister wanted to answer. Santa eventually gave up, leaving their gifts on the front porch. When their mom came home and found out what happened, he recalled, it was not a good Christmas. “I was afraid of Santa because I was always told he was a disciplinarian who would whip you when you were bad.”

When their two adult children were little, Larry and Trish did invite Santa to their home and did the traditional visits. “But I never had any desire to portray Santa,” Larry said. “Never.”

It wasn’t until January of 2012 that Santa entered Larry’s life for good — meaning both permanently and positively. That’s when the then 55-year-old clean-shaven, short-haired Schuler began letting his whiskers grow.

By April of that year, with spring in the air, he was ready to shave off the full winter beard. But in place of the rusty beard he’d occasionally grown in his younger years, this beard had come in snow white, and the comparisons had already begun. “Several people started telling me I looked like Santa, and I ought to consider doing that.”

Santa Larry displays his diploma from the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School.

Coincidentally, a Santa convention was taking place just then in Santa Claus, and the Schulers checked it out. When Larry told a portrait photographer at the convention he had never been a Santa before, the photographer gave him a Santa hat and coat to try on for looks.

“I was, ‘Wow!’ I didn’t realize how much I did look like Santa!”

“I told him that’s a God-given gift he needed to do something with,” Trish said.

“That was probably my main motivation,” added Larry. “If God made me look this way, then he must want me to do this. So, it’s a privilege to portray Santa.”

The Santa at Holiday World theme park put Larry in touch with another Santa in New Albany who became his mentor. That man, his wife, and another couple who portray Santa and Mrs. Claus visited the Schulers at their home. Over that first five hour visit, they asked questions and talked about the role — that really is like a calling. That’s when Larry began seeing Santa in a whole new light, almost like when the Grinch had his epiphany. “Santa’s not a disciplinarian. Santa’s just here to spread love. That’s all. That’s what it’s all about.”

Still, Larry was skeptical he’d fit in Santa’s boots. While Santa is a larger-than-life character, Larry feared his 6-foot-5 frame might be too large. “I was afraid my height would scare children. I thought Santa is supposed to be a little ol’ elf, short, jolly and round and all that.”

In addition to being tall, Larry said he was shy. But those two traits may have best prepared the soft-spoken Schuler for the Santa role — as the loving and giving spirit of Christmas. “I was always a listener. I talked very little. I just listened to what other people had to say, and I would ask questions about them. Now I realize it was a way to keep the attention off of me because of my size.”

After attending his first Santa school in Michigan in 2012, Larry was hooked.

That first Christmas, Larry and Trish booked only four appearances. The first was at the Santa Claus United Methodist Church camp’s Breakfast with Santa. Some 400 kids were there to see the man of the hour. “I was very nervous that I was going to say something wrong or do something wrong,” Larry said. But it went off without a hitch, and he and Mrs. Claus hitched their sleigh to Dasher, Dancer, Prancer and Vixen and the rest and have been dashing away ever since.

“We didn’t know what to expect when we started this. But we get back so much more love than we give,” Larry said. “Since our grandchildren are in Texas, this is kind of our fill in. We get to be around all these children the whole season, and it’s just wonderful.”

Even now, Santa Larry still gets a little nervous before an event, but he turns to the one he says the season is really all about for support. “Just before I get there, I say, ‘Jesus, you need to take over. Just come in because the children loved you, and you always welcomed the children up around you. So help me to know what to say.’ And it all just comes. It’s just amazing.”

Larry Schuler shows off the special “class ring” his wife, Trish, gave him for Christmas last year. The custom-made gold ring has a likeness of Santa on one side, and the word “Noel” and an image of the Nativity and Star of Bethlehem are cut into the other. The top is adorned with a Christmas wreath and ribbon and holly designs surrounding a deep red garnet stone. He said the ring is to remind him of the reason for the season — the birth of Christ — and to keep that Christmas spirit in his heart year round.

Becoming Santa

Wearing the beard and essentially representing Santa year round does put added pressure on him, Larry said. “You’re always concerned about your appearance. You want to watch your language. You don’t want to say anything distasteful. You never drink alcohol in public. I used to get done mowing the yard and have a cold beer. I don’t even do that anymore,” he said.

His friends and co-workers have noticed the change in him over the years. “You’re sure not the way you used to be,” people will say. He hopes that’s true.

“This is the way I should have been all along. I should have been more open. I should’ve been more giving and loving to people,” Larry said, adding, “Not running around hugging everybody — I don’t mean that — but just more open and accepting.

“In looking back, I was more judgmental because I thought I was being judged all the time because of my size, my red hair and freckles and all that. So I found myself judging people, too.”

Larry said he has pondered the question that the beard lets him be someone he’s not. “But my true self is behind all this,” he answers. “I just never let it come out. When you get in a situation, instantly you have to react. I wouldn’t be able to do what I need to do or say what I need to say to help that person in that situation if this wasn’t me. So deep down, I believe I changed, and it’s for the better.”

Portraying Santa emphasizes to him that Christmas is not about Santa. “It’s about the gift we got that first Christmas — that’s Jesus that the heavenly father gave to us. Santa represents that spirit of giving.”

He said some older kids occasionally will try to trick him when asking if he’s Santa. But Larry turns it back on them. “I try telling them, ‘You are Santa.’

“They will look at you, ‘Well, how is that?’

“And I’ll say, ‘Do you remember that feeling you got when maybe you picked a few flowers for your mom? Or you actually did give someone a gift? Or you gave a heartfelt hug to someone? Remember how good that feels? That’s what Santa does. Santa gives love and is love. So, in your way, you have Santa in your heart. And that is what you’re doing: you are giving and you are loving. That’s how the spirit of Santa lives on in you.’”

RICHARD G. BIEVER is senior editor of Electric Consumer.


The ‘Quotable’ Claus

‘Christmas Magic’ explains many of Santa’s closely guarded secrets

Since Santa’s clientele is mostly inquisitive youngsters, he’s been asked many questions over the course of his long illustrious career. Thanks to Larry Schuler, a certified “Santa Helper” at Dubois REC, Santa has provided answers to some of the oft-asked questions.

Favorite cookie?

“Santa loves all cookies. They’re all good. But if you want to get that special one, Santa really likes white chocolate macadamia nut cookies.”

Favorite christmas song?

“‘Carol of the Bells’ is Santa’s favorite and is his cell phone ring tone. But ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ is also a favorite.”

How does Santa enter Houses that have no chimney?

“Santa carries a ‘magic key’ on his belt that works only on Christmas Eve. If there is no chimney, it allows him in through your door. And he always re-locks it on his way out.”

Why are the reindeer so seldom seen?

“They are very bashful, and ‘Christmas Magic’ keeps the reindeer hidden from everyone. Otherwise, people would be after them and want to see them and take pictures, and Santa wouldn’t be able to get anywhere.”

How does Santa get everywhere in one night?

“The world has 24 time zones, and with Christmas Magic, Santa is able to slow down time enough that he is able to get all the toys delivered to all those who believe…. Plus, we have satellite toy stations and portals where Santa can restock the sleigh without having to travel back to the North Pole.”

Santa’s advice for staying on the “Nice List”?

“The best way to stay on the ‘Nice List’ is to give lots of hugs. That lets people know you love them, and it’s the easiest way to show them. It doesn’t cost you anything, and it’s a great gift. Even when you’re mad at someone, like sister or brother or mom or dad, or someone is mad at you, go up and give that person a hug right then. They’ll wonder what’s going on. But it’ll make things better really fast.”

‘Ho, ho, ho’s’ and other requests

Folks sometimes have interesting things on their Christmas list. Here are several memorable ones Larry and Trish Schuler have heard.

A turkey for the family

“We had a child who wanted a live pet turkey. Well, it’s like with the puppies. You say, ‘The elves don’t make puppies or turkeys, but Santa has some connections. He will definitely have to ask your parents if it’s OK, and if they’re OK with it, then I will to try to get that for you.”

A lump of coal

“One child asked for coal. He liked to help is dad out in the workshop, and the workshop had a coal-fired heater. He wanted coal to help fire the stove.”

The Gift of prayer

“The hard one is if grandpa or someone is sick or just passed away.

“‘Can you bring them back?’

“As Santa, you say, ‘Only God can do that. But I’ll tell you what I can do’ — and you have a little book along, and you get that out — ‘I’m going to write down in here your grandpa’s name. Tonight when I’m done, I will say a prayer for him. But I can’t bring him back.”

Magic Porsche

“We were leaving the Seelbach Hotel in Louisville after a ‘Breakfast with Santa,’ and the valet brought our car around. The driver, who was probably in his 40s, got out and said, ‘Santa, I need a new car for Christmas.’

“I said, ‘Really? What would you like?’

“‘I’d kinda a red Porsche,’ he said.

“On the console of my Tahoe, I had a little red Matchbox Porsche. I grabbed that and said, ‘Here you go! You water this three times a day, and in a week, it’ll be a full-size car.’

“And he looked at me and said, ‘How did you do that?’”


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