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updated: 12/29/2012 9:38 AM

Santa and Mrs. Claus pack their suits for move to Tennessee

Santa and Mrs. Claus pack their suits for move to Tennessee

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  • Mrs. Claus reads "'Twas the Night before Christmas" to children at Hesed House in Aurora while Santa looks on. Also known as Ted and Marianne Wilkinson, the couple have been playing Santa and Mrs. Claus in the Aurora area for 24 years.

       Mrs. Claus reads "'Twas the Night before Christmas" to children at Hesed House in Aurora while Santa looks on. Also known as Ted and Marianne Wilkinson, the couple have been playing Santa and Mrs. Claus in the Aurora area for 24 years.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • Santa and Mrs. Claus listen to what River Torres, 8, wants for Christmas during a visit at Hesed House in Aurora.

       Santa and Mrs. Claus listen to what River Torres, 8, wants for Christmas during a visit at Hesed House in Aurora.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • Makayla Mudd, 3, sits on Santa's lap to tell him her Christmas wishes.

       Makayla Mudd, 3, sits on Santa's lap to tell him her Christmas wishes.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

 
 

Children know this is the real Santa because of the magic key he wears around his neck. That's to visit homes where there's no chimney to go down.

Or maybe they know this red-suited man is for real because of the kindness and love that radiate from him and Mrs. Claus.

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"I do this because I love kids," says Ted Wilkinson of Yorkville, who with his wife, Marianne, have been Santa and his helpmate to Aurora-area children for 24 years.

You find them visiting with homeless kids at Hesed House in Aurora and with children with disabilities at the Kendall County Special Olympics. They're the guests of honor at several other charities and at private homes and businesses.

"We do about 30 visits a year," says Mrs. Claus. "It's all word-of-mouth. We don't advertise."

Wilkinson's career as Santa started when a neighbor had a red suit to sell and he already had his own year-round beard. A firefighter in the Yorkville Fire Department, he became Santa at the department's Christmas party and Mrs. Claus joined him in a costume made by her daughter-in-law.

It just grew from there, until now. With Christmas behind them, Santa and Mrs. Claus, both 69, have announced plans to retire and move to Jackson, Tenn., in January. It's been a good run, says Mrs. Claus, who admits she does most of the talking in the family.

"It's been a joy to us," she says.

Visits with the kids

With their own four children, seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren scattered around the country, they've been glad to be Santa and the missis to other people's kids.

During their visits, Mrs. Claus reads "Twas the Night Before Christmas" and maybe a couple other books to the kids. Santa tells the story of the magic key around his neck and explains why his reindeer aren't with him. The reindeer live at the North Pole and can fly only on Christmas Eve because of Christmas magic, he says.

The children sit on his lap to tell their wishes, or if they are frightened, they may sit with Mrs. Claus instead.

"He never promises them anything," Mrs. Claus says. "He says I'll see what I can do."

Some wishes tug at their hearts, like a child's request that parents not divorce or that a dad come home from Afghanistan. If a puppy, kitten or other pet is requested, Santa tells the child his elves can't make animals.

"We sort of have to think on our feet sometimes," Mrs. Claus says.

Toy requests have changed some over the years, she says. They get lots of kids asking for items like iPads and Kindle Fires these days.

"Most of the electronic stuff, they rattle off, we don't even (know about)," she says. "They don't ask for trains anymore."

But some Christmas wishes haven't changed all that much. Boys still want trucks. Girls want Barbies and American Girl dolls.

"Legos are popular every year," Mrs. Claus adds.

If the children have questions for Santa and Mrs. Claus, the first couple of Christmas have answers. What is Santa's favorite cookie? Oatmeal raisin. What do the reindeer like to eat? Carrots and celery.

The real Santa

So convincing is Santa that Mrs. Claus relates a story of one little girl who, when asked about her visit to Santa at the mall, replied that it was all right, but he wasn't the real Santa because he didn't have the magic key.

The Wilkinsons' authenticity is what has made them such popular hits with kids, says Ryan Dowd, executive director of Hesed House, where Santa and Mrs. Claus have been visiting for years.

"They do it so often they are very comfortable with it," he says. "You can tell they really enjoy it. You would think people who do it as often as they do would get tired of it, but they don't."

Mrs. Claus says that the children in the Hesed House shelter are among their favorite visits.

"They are so starved for love," she says. "Lots of time when Santa walks in the door, they grab him around the leg."

The children in Kendall County Special Olympics are another favorite stop.

"Their eyes light up when they see Santa," Mrs. Claus says.

Santa and Mrs. Claus consider their visits to nonprofit organizations charity, and do not charge as they would for private visits. Other organizations they've stopped at year after year include Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southern Kane and Kendall Counties, Lifespring Ministries, Yorkville Fire Department and Yorkville Public Library, where Mrs. Claus once served on the library board.

Even private visits can put a lump in the throat, Mrs. Claus says. Several years ago, they stopped at a home where a small boy couldn't get up and talk with Santa because he had an IV in him and his dad was being gruff with him. At another home, a little girl told Santa she had learned to play the guitar and asked if she could play for him.

Visits normally take about an hour, and they don't rush it. "We're not an assembly-line Santa," Mrs. Claus says.

When not being Mrs. Claus, Marianne Wilkinson has served as the administrative assistant to the director of Aurora University's School of Social Works for the past 10 years. Her husband retired in 2011 after 40 years as a real estate broker in Kendall County. They couldn't move right after his retirement because they already had made promises for Santa appearances for this year, Mrs. Claus says.

So why are Santa and Mrs. Claus moving to Tennessee? Would you believe they're trying to get away from winter? Plus, it's cheaper to live there than at the North Pole (or northern Illinois) and Santa has a sister there, Mrs. Claus says.

"We're been going down for years. We like the area," she says.

But don't count Santa and Mrs. Claus out. They're going to live in housing that likely includes children in the complex, and who knows what might happen next.

"We're going to take our suit," Mrs. Claus says.

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