Santa Claus took a bus to Detroit Nov. 23 and flew to Costa Rica, where he checked into San José’s Hotel Don Carlos with suitcases full of bright feathers, garage-sale jewelry, prescription medications and $2 bills.
“Want to see what a mess looks like?” he asks, inviting us into his room. Christmas treasures spill over his small bed. The red jacket hangs in the corner.
Santa’s voice is a cheerful growl, quiet and gruff.He wears a red T-shirt, suspenders and bifocals, and has a white beard and white hair with a tinge of yellow.
“Got one bad habit,” he says, taking a pinch of Skoal before sitting to tell his story, which comes in tangential asides, with occasional interpretation by his friend Mike Hardiman.
Santa dedicated himself to being Santa “for the kids of Central America” in memory of his wife, who died in 1995, explains Hardiman, who was on a business trip from Florida when he met Santa here a few years ago. Santa passes out toys, candy and $2 bills wherever he goes, but especially in San José’s Children’s Hospital, Hardiman says.
“He usually gives me about $2,000,” says Lupita Weiler, owner of Hotel Don Carlos. She uses the money to buy toys at a discount from the department store El Amigo Invisible.
“He puts on that hot thing,”Weiler adds.
“He walks, with his bad leg, all morning long, up and down the hospital floor, with a smile and a ho-ho… every child gets a toy.”
“He’s got a heart like a rainbow and the organizational skills of a dendrobate,” Hardiman writes in an e-mail.
“He’s the most kind-hearted person I know,” says Maggie Jamieson of Galería Namu, an indigenous art gallery Santa frequents in San José.
“¡Ay, Santa! ¡Pura vida!” says a hotel housekeeper, seeing him for the first time since last year. Santa, who speaks hardly any Spanish, responds with a hug and a quiet smile.
About halfway through the interview, we ask Santa for his other name (Ron Chamberlain) and his age.
“Ahh… I have a birthday soon,” he says.
“After this birthday I’ll be 166,” he says, explaining shyly that when he was young, his parents left him and a brother in an Alaskan cave while they panned for gold. The cave froze over, trapping the youngsters until the Soviets tested an atomic bomb and melted them out.
After a pause, he subtracts 100 years from his first claim, “for the record.” During many of his 66 years, Chamberlain was an ironworker and a saturation diver, living and working underwater in New Zealand and Southeast Asia. He’s been married three times. He tried to start a zoo in rural Michigan– “That was the end of my first marriage,” he says, describing how his baby lion
grew to 160 kilograms, and his black bear to 235. He has four adult children and a goddaughter in the United States, but he’s never been Santa, except in Costa Rica.
Around the time he lost his wife to cancer, he smashed his foot in an industrial accident and vowed not to shave until his workers’ compensation insurance gave him a fair deal. His beard is at least a foot long. He hasn’t worked in 10 years, he says, but lives a modest lifestyle on U.S. Social Security checks, which allow him to come to Costa Rica on one-man charitable tours about this time every year.
His first trip, 10 years ago, was to get away from the sadness and lack of sunlight that plagued his Michigan winters. He hadn’t planned on being Santa, until kids here “recognized” him, and he saw they weren’t getting much for presents.
“I used to walk down the street in Cahuita with a beer in my hand – which is always good ’cause you always have a weapon with you,” he says.
When he started passing out treats in the southern-Caribbean beach town, he decided to clean up his public image a bit, though he’s still rough around the edges for certain folk.
“Down in Salt Creek the first time, about a quarter of the kids ran away,” he says, describing another Caribbean handout session near Bocas del Toro, Panama.
While he seems fearless, Santa is streetsmart; he watches his back. He has a sheriff ’s badge on his wallet, which he flashes upon sensing potential robbery (he says it works), and he brings a guard to the hospital to keep nurses from stealing the children’s presents, he says. He now buys extra candy for parents, to stop them from pilfering their children’s, and he has plenty of $2 bills to buy off those who would stand in his way.
Santa takes the do-what-you-can-with what-you-got approach, without waiting for institutional backing.
“I just kinda wander around… there’re always people to help,” he says.
One year he brought his wife’s collection of wigs and gave them to a foundation for people with cancer – now, wigs are standard items he collects in the off-season. He gives laminated wall maps and National Geographic magazines to schools in the Caribbean region of Talamanca, synthetic animal products to Brunca indigenous communities to use in festive masks, books on tape to a blind man in Cahuita, gift subscriptions to the political comic paper Funny Times to dozens of people (including Fidel Castro) and disposable cameras to kids around the southern Caribbean region.
“Takes about a year then to get (the pictures) back,” Santa says – he develops the film and brings the pictures the following Christmas.
Where’s he headed this season?
“Every place, until I run out of money or my body gives out,” he says.
Hardiman breaks down Santa’s usual route: the Children’s Hospital; an orphanage in the Caribbean-slope town of Siquirres; the Bribrí (Talamanca) indigenous territory and Cahuita; and Bocas del Toro.
Santa’s on his second knee replacement; sunshine and sunny people keep him going in spite of this and a handful of other ailments.
“It’s like getting out of jail when I come down here,” he says.
Santa’s fallen five times from higher than four meters, been in three roll-over car wrecks, and says he should have been killed 150 times.
“Everyone has a destiny. I’m not sure what’s mine,” he says, pausing. “But I think it’s Santa.”
Want to Be Santa’s Helper?
Those who’d like to contribute to Santa’s stash – toys, wigs or money – can do so through Lupita Weiler at Hotel Don Carlos, Calle 9 at Avenida 9, in San José. For information, call 221-6707.