No one notices Joe Eadie as he sips peppermint tea at a coffee shop–until the bespectacled sixty-eight-year-old with white hair and beard, bushy eyebrows, and a red baseball cap lets out a loud “Ho, ho, ho!” and a hearty laugh.
A guy working at his laptop turns and stares: Santa is in the building.
Eadie says the look is “God-given.” But he’s been honing the laugh and other skills for almost a decade as the resident Santa at Kerrytown Market & Shops, making appearances at its tree lighting, KindleFest, and on the weekends leading up to Christmas. While holding down a day job in sales at the manufacturing technology company Zoller, Eadie appeared at twenty events last year–and gave out 1,800 candy canes. He says he relishes being the “spirit-filled guy who brings joy to a lot of people,” but, as the Kerrytown events have swelled in size over the years, “it’s become logistically more difficult.” Last year, during Midnight Madness, he saw several hundred kids in four hours.
Eadie studied acting with local Redbud Productions and starred as Santa for three years in a Canton holiday show before Kerrytown recruited him. But Eadie says he doesn’t just want to play Santa, he strives to “become Santa.” Drawing on the Sanford Meisner acting technique he learned at Redbud, he focuses on character background, emotional work, and scene study. He purchased two Santa outfits online for about $400 apiece, adding props, like an old-fashioned pocket watch and bells, and a white shirt with candy-cane buttons his sister-in-law made for him.
He’s attended St. Nicholas Institute in Detroit and belongs to the Michigan Association of Professional Santas and the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas. “I’m always learning more to be better,” he says. While there are many Santa styles, from Victorian to Coca-Cola to the traditional St. Nicholas, his is a “working-class Santa–as real as I can be.”
He says the window of time when children believe has become shorter. “The sad thing is with the Internet and television, unfortunately, there isn’t any mystery anymore.” He sees “lots of babies” through kids up to around age eight. “I tell the older children they have a very important job … to keep the Christmas spirit alive and to be Santa’s helper. That’s maybe my farewell to them.”
Eadie says kids still bring their Christmas lists, and ask for Legos, Polly Pockets, and My Little Ponies–and in Ann Arbor, they often ask for books. “When they ask for iPads or say they want an iPhone 6 or 8 or 12, well, I say to the younger ones that Santa doesn’t do well with electronics because they get banged around in the sleigh.”
Another challenge is requests for live animals: “I’ll say ‘it’s very, very cold in the sleigh so I can’t promise,’ unless maybe if I get a wink from mom and dad.” He’ll always say, “I’ll do my best” and promises each child that “on Christmas morning there’s gonna be surprises for you!”
Eadie’s parents divorced when he was young, and he and his four younger siblings were separated, living in foster care and with relatives. “It was not the happiest of times,” he says, but godparents–an aunt and uncle who had three kids of their own–provided a “wonderful” upbringing. “I went from being the oldest to being the baby of the family,” he says. He’s still in touch with his surviving siblings but says he’s closer to the cousins he grew up with.
Eadie graduated from Saline High and attended WCC and EMU–“I have a lot of life skills but no degree,” he says. He came to Zoller after “a lot of years in retail and sales.” He’s the oldest employee at the company’s new North American headquarters in the Ann Arbor Research Park.
He and his wife, Jan, live in an old farmhouse in Lodi Township and have two grown children. Jan “tells people she’s not Mrs. Claus when they ask,” he laughs, but is supportive of his side job, and grateful that playing Santa “keeps me happy.”
“Life is life,” he says. “People have their baggage … and I’m still trying to figure out how to lay my baggage aside.” When he’s not being Santa, he says, he can be “feisty and spirited and sometimes disagreeable.” But though “I’m getting old, and it can be tiring,” he says, “Santa can’t have a bad day.”
“Being Santa is a simple life. Santa doesn’t pay any bills. Santa doesn’t fight with Mrs. Claus. Santa doesn’t worry about his weight or how he looks. It’s kinda fun.”
A forty-year member of Bethlehem United Church of Christ, Eadie sees commonality in how Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa all celebrate light during “the darkest time of the year.” He often carries gold chocolate coins in his pocket to hand out with his candy canes, and he says Jewish families bring their kids to meet him too.
Although he has liability insurance and undergoes a background check “because that’s the world we live in today,” he says he’s “very sheltered because of the way Ann Arbor is. I don’t hear a lot of sad stories like some Santas do.” He does recall a disheveled-looking boy who tugged on his suit when he was walking outside at Kerrytown one evening and asked for a sewing machine so he could make his mom some new clothes.
“Those are the times I wish I could miraculously wave this wand,” he says, his voice cracking. He’s made visits to sick and dying children. “I sat with my wife and said, ‘I don’t know if I can do this,’ but I was honored that somebody thought enough of what I did that they asked me.” He says he held the child, talked, and the family took pictures. “My picture is in thousands of homes and scrapbooks, and that’s pretty neat,” he says.
Once, when he was confronted by a boy who claimed Eadie was “just a fat man in a suit,” the adults around him rallied to his defense. “What do you mean I’m not real? Touch my hand. I’m real!” he told the boy. He tells the naysayers that “Santa has helpers everywhere, because Santa can’t be everywhere. You can’t be sure which one is the real one.”
Eadie explains he doesn’t feel guilty about the friendly fibs. “I don’t feel like I’m lying any more than people that told legends and stories around campfires and told of heroes.” Too many people, he says, “have lost their sense of humor. I hope I bring a little back to them.
“I have children that tell their parents when they see other Santas, ‘That can’t be the real Santa because the real Santa is at Kerrytown,'” Eadie says. “So I know I did something right.”