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Dec 18, 2017 10:27 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Longtime Santas Are Dedicated To Their Craft

Bill John Koehler straps on his Santa belly. KATE RIGA
Dec 19, 2017 11:52 AM

They wear expensive, custom-made suits. They are organized and good at making lists. They are absolutely indispensable, and the center of attention at every gathering they attend. They are in the business of spreading cheer.

Every Christmas season, dozens of Santas materialize on the South Fork. At fire departments, tree lightings and pancake breakfasts, the rotund men in red make appearances to add some extra Christmas joy.

In local communities, two veteran Santas in particular have been bringing the holiday spirit for decades.

Jay Mooney from Wantagh is the 54-year-old general manager at North Fork Trolley when he’s not moonlighting as Kris Kringle. And Bill Koehler is a 51-year-old Hampton Bays driver for S&P Carting Service Inc. in Water Mill for most of the year.

Both men embraced their Clausian destinies early in life.

“I started playing Santa when I was 17, for the fire department in Seaford,” said Mr. Mooney in a recent interview. “I was ‘volun-told’ to do it. But I really got into it.” He added, “Back then, I was in what I call a $5.99 special—[a] suit right off the rack.”

“I started in 1982, when I was 15 or 16, for a family holiday party,” Mr. Koehler recalled recently. “I borrowed a cheap suit and a terrible wig from my aunt and uncle on Canoe Place.”

What started as a casual favor turned into a real passion for both men. They continued playing Santa during their young adulthoods—Mr. Koehler performing on a voluntary basis, while Mr. Mooney made it part of his livelihood.

“From ages 25 to 26, I did small parties,” Mr. Mooney said. “I started doing big events in my late 30s to early 40s, and that’s when I started taking it seriously. I spent a few hundred dollars on suits and boots.”

Mr. Mooney advertised on Craigslist, performing at everything from toy drives to the annual swanky holiday party for the Bank of China in Manhattan. “They had really good Chinese food,” Mr. Mooney noted.

Mr. Koehler also started investing in his equipment in his 30s, going so far as to have an ophthalmologist craft him some Santa specs with fake lenses after the reading glasses he used to use started straining his eyes. He bought an expensive suit from a costume shop in Patchogue and some sturdy black boots, too. “Kids won’t believe a Santa in sneakers,” he said.

Both men experimented with different aspects of their look. Mr. Mooney created an old-fashioned Santa visage, with a flowing robe and matching vest. Mr. Koehler tried out different dyes to whiten his beard, including shoe polish and Rust-Oleum spray paint. “I’m hoping to go white one Christmas soon,” Mr. Koehler said.

But there’s more to Santa than looking the part. Through the years, both men have picked up tricks of the trade to make their Santas as believable as possible.

“You just need to listen and be observant,” explained Mr. Mooney. He teaches the Santas-in-training at the North Fork Trolley’s Polar Express event to listen to parents talking to their kids in order to surprise the little ones by knowing their names when they step up in line.

Mr. Koehler has added tricks to his repertoire over the years, like telling kids that a messy room prevents a planted “magic snowball” from transmitting a signal to Santa’s sleigh, reminding him to stop at the house. This year, he’s added Santa Claus business cards so millennial kids can send their letters straight to Santa’s Gmail account.

By now, both men are renowned for their abilities. Mr. Koehler estimated that he is performing for 30 events this season, including a whopping eight appearances last Saturday alone, stretching from a breakfast at 8 a.m. to a holiday party wrapping up at 1 a.m.

Mr. Mooney, now occupied with managing North Fork Trolley and especially the Polar Express rides with a brand-new route in Southampton, has had to leave his Santa suit in the closet, though he painstakingly trains his new hires to uphold his high standards. “I jump in if someone needs a day off,” he said.

In the end, these sometime Santas do it for the kids.

“The smile on a kid’s face makes it all worth it,” Mr. Koehler said.

“There is nothing better than making a kid believe,” Mr. Mooney added.

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