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Three Cities Where Santa Acts Like a Local

Holiday celebrations in Houston, Chicago, and Portland have a distinctly hometown flair.

Sure, Santa Claus lives in the North Pole—but he also roams tons of other places for festive parades, toy drives, and photo ops. (And sometimes, he’s a gnome, or maybe a goat.) CityLab caught up with three jolly dudes whose take on St. Nick reflects the cities they call home.

Santa: Richard Reyes

City: Houston

Richard Reyes and his son, Rene, in front of the Talento Bilingüe de Houston theater. (Art Ornelas)

Richard Reyes’s Pancho Claus character doesn’t need a sleigh. Wearing a cockeyed fedora, sunglasses, and a bright crimson zoot suit, he cruises around Houston in a lowrider.

Pancho Clauses are seasonal sights in some pockets of the Southwest with sizable Latino populations—like Houston, where nearly 44 percent of residents are Latino. The Pancho Claus characters often wear sombreros and serapes, but Reyes fashioned his slick alter ego after the 1981 flick Zoot Suit. Back then, Reyes used to visit school classrooms and recite poems, spitting verse he describes as “like ‘Night Before Christmas,’ but barrio.” He tried to make kids giggle, with the aim of getting them to come out to parks or libraries to see the holiday play he’d written. (Sample line: “It was the night before Christmas, and all through the casa, not a creature was stirring. Hey, vato, que pasa?”)

It was an era, he says, in which performing arts didn’t have a strong presence in Houston—and when they did, Latino kids didn’t see themselves represented in the works. His character, he thought, could be a way to mirror the Chicano culture that he didn’t often see onstage. “There’s room for Asian Claus, African-American Claus,” he says. “Kids want to see a reflection.”

These days, the 65-year-old fills auditoriums for performances with hip-hop dancers and a swinging band. With the help of local partners and a fleet of volunteers, he hands out toys to needy kids. But he wants to remind those kids that even though he’s the one passing out the swag, Pancho Claus is an attitude, not a single person. He says he emphasizes to starry-eyed kids that “the Pancho Clauses in their life are their tía, neighbor, teachers—people who step up and should be appreciated.”

Santa: Tony Valdez

City: Chicago

Santa’s got a cold ride through Chicago on an open-top flat car. (Tony Valdez)

To guard his face against the Windy City’s harsh gusts, Tony Valdez grew his beard long each winter. So, when a colleague at the CTA approached the former rail janitor about stepping into character as an L-riding Santa Claus, Valdez thought, sure—I’ve already got the scruff. Now in his fifth spin as Santa, Valdez has learned to bleach his salt-and-pepper beard himself.

A few decades ago, the transit agency’s carpenters built a sleigh on a flat car, which terminals kept around to facilitate maintenance work. For the last 25 holiday seasons, the sleigh has been open to the public. Throughout November and December, the festive train winds across the system’s eight lines. It mostly chugs along according to the regular rail schedule, but there are some stations at which folks can climb aboard. (For the third year, a holiday bus is out on the streets, too.)

In between stops and photo ops, Valdez fixes his costume, steals sips of water, or pops a cough drop. “My voice gets raw after ho-ho-ho’ing,” he says.

The sleigh is still parked atop an open-air car. It showcases the carpenters’ handiwork, but also exposes Santa and his crew to the elements. Valdez has learned a few tricks along the way: He coats his cheeks with Vaseline so they don’t get chapped, and he pins his hat to the collar of his coat, because “if you lose your hat going 50 miles an hour, it’s gone.”

Valdez is happy to keep up the tradition that started on Chicago’s Blue Line, and recently got the chance to chat with the CTA’s first Santa. Flipping through old photographs, Valdez recognized some of his colleagues. The holiday train, he says, is “something they took pride in, and continue to.”

Santa: Anonymous

City: Portland

Santa kicks back at Pioneer Place. (Courtesy Pioneer Place)

On Thursdays, the Santa Claus at the Pioneer Place mall peels off his usual costume and pulls on casual clothes: skinny jeans, hi-top Chuck Taylors, and a Pendleton sweater. He rolls up his sleeves to show off forearms full of ink: “Naughty” on one arm, “Nice” on the other.

When this dressed-down Santa debuted at the mall last year, he and his man bun quickly captured attention. Many news outlets described him as a hipster. (“Portland’s hipster Santa is back, and he knows if you’ve been buying organic,” The Oregonian chided.) Some bemoaned the display as the apex of campiness—a cringeworthy Portlandia tableau come to life. (One tweet read: “Sometimes, there are not enough eye-roll emojis.”) But Bob Buchanan, the mall’s senior general manager, views the whole twee setup as a demonstration of local pride. “We like to say he’s Portland Santa,” Buchanan says. “He’s all things unique to Portland. By default, that happens to be a hipster.”

A photo posted by Portland Oregon (@portland) on

That vibe extends to the décor scattered through Santa’s meet-and-greet area. There’s a yarn-bombed statue of a beaver—the Oregon State mascot—in homage to the tradition of swaddling local statues with textiles. Santa’s chair is upholstered with fabric milled to recall the old carpet covering the floor at the PDX airport. A nearby bicycle is piled high with parcels.

Buchanan is tight-lipped about this Santa’s identity. “Santa is Santa,” he insists, when I press him. But one thing’s for sure: he definitely lives in Portland.

About the Author

  • Jessica Leigh Hester
    Jessica Leigh Hester is a senior associate editor at CityLab. She writes about culture, sustainability, and green spaces, and lives in Brooklyn.