It’s gonna sound like I’m making this up. But I promise you, it’s true.
The first thing that happened when I stepped into Jonathon Meath’s Newburyport home — a man who’s been a professional Santa Claus now for a decade — was he offered me a cookie. Next he poured some fresh-brewed, piping-hot tea and threw a couple of logs on the fire. Once it was blazing and crackling, we sat down to chat.
Meath has always spent a lot of time with kids. He’s had a long career as a children’s television producer — including stints here at WGBH on Where in the World and the Zoom reboot. But about 10 years ago, the kids started noticing something.
"I’m a little overweight," Meath said. "We like to say organic Santa sized. I’d always had a beard since the time I was 23, and my beard had gotten white. And kids were starting to call me Santa."
And so, as a joke, his then-wife bought him a Santa suit for Christmas. Meath says he laughed, and then, as strange as it might sound, he sort of felt the suit calling to him.
"I found myself in the bathtub one day, thinking about how often people have opportunities that stare them in the face — and then slough them off," he said.
The next year he took a gig as a mall Santa, where he quickly learned how much he liked the work: "Even though it’s grueling, it is one of the most wonderful experiences in the world."
He also realized that being Santa was something he innately took very seriously. He noted, as an example, how he quickly learned to handle situations where mothers pull him aside and ask him to tell their children they've been naughty and might not get anything for Christmas.
"My response to them is, and I truly believe this, all people are good," he said. "And it is not up to Santa to chastise people, especially children."
As the Christmases added up, so too did the gigs. Corporate parties. A holiday-themed safety video for Delta Airlines. Two seasons at Radio City Music Hall. And a stint at a chain of hotel restaurants in Osaka, Japan.
"In Japan, when you say 'the North Pole' everybody looks blankly at you," he explained. "It took me three days to realize that the proper response to 'Santa, where are you from?' in Japan was 'Finland.' When you say Finland, everybody rejoices."
Becoming Santa has transformed Meath’s life in all sorts of ways. He’s taken on new responsibilities.
"I ended up becoming a board member of something called the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas," he explained. "There are what are called designer bearded Santas, and there are real bearded Santas."
And is there a rivalry between the two?
"I'd say prejudice," Meath said, laughing.
There are the yearly conferences, with seminars on everything from how to market yourself to honing your craft.
"[We have] a 'ho-ho-ho-ing' workshop; a chuckling workshop, if you will," he said. "We will work for hours and critique each other. It’s a marvelous thing, and we have a lot of fun"
Listen to Jonathan Meath give Edgar a 'ho-ho-ho-ing' lesson:
There is the upkeep. Meath says he has gone through more types of hair and beard product than you can imagine. And, of course, there is the gear.
"Many Santas are known as peacocks because we have so many clothes," said Meath, unleashing a litany of taccoutremen he's gathered over the years.
"Belts; different colored boots; many, many hats: Santa hats with pom poms, Santa hats with bells, Tyrolean hats of many types: leather, felt. I even have a pair of bundhosen for those occasions when I need to be a little more Germanic."
Of course that is all just the prelude to the main course, of which Meath has plenty.
"I have four regular Santa suits [and] two Coca-Cola Santa suits."
Those Coca-Cola suits are a huge deal. Our image of Santa owes much to those iconic drawings that Coca-Cola used around the holidays since the 1930s. But this year the company decided, for the first time, to use a real person as Santa in their holiday advertising. Meath landed the job.
"I have the right cheeks," he explained. "And the right twinkle."
Meath is currently featured on thousands of signs and billboards, and in commercials in 120 different countries.
"I was really an honor to be chosen and to be the first real life Santa to represent the Coca-Cola Santa," he said. "It was a great opportunity, and I've embraced it."
As the fire began to wane, I asked Meath if becoming Santa has changed him. He thought for a long time before answering. Not so much changed, he said, but it has brought him deeper in touch with what he has always believed.
"The one on one and the giving of attention and gravitas to the desires of children is a wonderful, wonderful thing to do," he explained.
I don’t know about you, but that sure sounds like the real Santa Claus to me.