By Angelo G. Garcia
Images by Manny LLanes
Santa Claus is probably the most recognizable Christmas symbol (besides Jesus, of course) in the world. The holidays are not complete without that jolly and burly old man with a long white beard in a red furry suit, carrying a red bag full of gifts and who constantly bellows “Ho, ho, ho! Merry Christmas!”
That familiar image is a version created by a popular soda company. But as Santa R-Kayma Klaws (yup, that’s his real name) explains it, there are different versions of Santa Claus around the world, the most famous of which is the story of St. Nikolai, a bishop who lived in the fourth century from a place called Myra in Asia Minor (now Turkey), who was known for his generosity and kindness toward children.
Santa R-Kayma is a member of Pacific Santa’s, a company based here in the Philippines composed of Caucasian men with big beards and bellies. He established the group in 1964 to let Filipinos experience the “real” Santa. The team is currently providing Santa’s to The Manila Hotel, which is also the central flagship zone for their activities.
Pacific Santa’s is just one group because there are various Santa groups around the globe. In fact, there is a union of Santa Clauses worldwide called the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas (IBRBS), it’s an organization of men and women who have dedicated their lives to the image of Santa.
According to the group, it’s perfect to work here in the country since the Philippines celebrates Christmas the longest. But what the group does is more than just corporate events like showing up at hotels and malls, they also make children happy all year round.
“Here in the Philippines, because of the long season, that gives us a four-and-a-half month season here. For those months we have a great corporate market. But then the other seven and a half months is where we find greater success. Because the country experiences calamities and disasters, you have the great need for humanitarian relief,” explains Santa R-Kayma, who has two Master’s degrees, in Child Psychology and Business Administration.
“When the first responders come in, we go with them. When they are rebuilding the homes and infrastructure, we start rebuilding hope. We start rebuilding empowerment. It means that Santa has not forgotten about them. It’s a distraction from the loss. That’s part of the rebuilding, too. This is part of our advocacy.”
Santa R-Kayma, who was born in Zamboanga to a Filipino mestizo dad and an Irish mom, started to don the red suit at the young age of 15. It was his visit to a leper colony in Cebu that made him realize he could make a difference by being Santa.
“Yes, it’s like a calling. I don’t have a job, I have a life choice. I’ve dedicated my life to the image of St. Nikolai and I’ve dedicated my life to the image of the peaceful and loving ambassador who brings yuletide and peace to all in the spirit of birth of our savior, Jesus.” the 69-year-old says. “The man don’t pick the suit, the suit usually picks the man. I’m there to provide a message of peace.”
The six-member group has been providing joy to children, whoever they may be. It may be a giddy child inside a mall or an ailing child in a hospital. Santa R-Kayma says that the goal is to keep the spirit of giving, peace, and kindness alive with these kids.
“It’s a wonderful feeling when you pick up a child and see him smiling and happy. But the hardest thing is going to those hospitals and those little kids they will not let you know they’re dying. I have trouble dealing with that,” says 62-year-old Santa Donald Schmidt, who has been wearing the suit for 21 years. Originally from Wisconsin, he has also dedicated himself to this life.
According to Santa Matthew Halick, the company’s vice president for marketing, the goal is to do more charity work than corporate events. At 24 years old, he is the youngest bearded Santa in the world and just recently worn the suit. The average Santa age is between 55 and 75 years old. He joined the group this year after doing charity work in the Philippines for the past two years. Santa R-Kayma discovered him in an international conference here in the country. Originating from Clayton, California, he has worked with Gawad Kalinga and he recently put up his own foundation called Service Has No Borders, which is now the partner charity org of Pacific Santa’s. He plans to continue his work under Pacific Santas.
“I’ve been coming to the Philippines for two years now. I went on a Church trip with the university I was in the first time but I wasn’t fulfilled by the experience. What I decided to do is to go back on my own, funded my own trip, got some donations. I realized that there was a lot more here than what people would say in the media. I started a foundation called Service Has No Borders, which Pacific Santa’s adopted as its charitable arm. Right now, we have five student scholarships in Manapla, Negros Occidental. That was my calling here. I’ve also adopted a school. The goal is to do more charity events than corporate events,” Santa Matthew explains.
Although the group is highly visible all year round and it’s easy to spot them here on the streets, the magic of Santa still lives on through their work.
“As Santa, we want to keep these children as long as we can in the spirit of giving and generosity. We don’t force any religion on a child. Whatever your religion is, we respect it,” Santa R-Kayma ends.