TRAVERSE CITY — Ellis Olson sometimes got only a pair of socks for Christmas. But he never lost his childhood faith in Santa.
For nearly 60 years now Olson has been helping other kids keep the faith, too. Each Christmas, he dresses up in a red velvet suit with white "fur" trim, throws a matching sack filled with candy and toys over his shoulder, and hops into his "sleigh" — a gray Chevrolet TrailBlazer — to visit as many as 50 girls and boys.
"It's the most fun thing I do all year," said Olson, 72, of Traverse City and Cheboygan.
The retired teacher and historian first played Santa as a teenager, while attending County Normal, a state-funded teacher training institute in Cheboygan. When a Santa for a nearby school got sick, Olson borrowed a suit and filled in.
"I wound up playing Santa at seven schools," said Olson, who eventually bought his own Santa suit, complete with a belt sporting harness bells.
Since then he's portrayed the jolly old elf for neighborhood children, children in needy local families, children his wife baby-sat for, even children of Coast Guard families in another state. He's also played Santa for his own children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews.
Wife Sandy now plays Santa's helper, driving Olson to his visits, shopping alongside him for Tonka toys and Barbie dolls, and passing him the toys he gives to children along with candy canes and jingle bells.
The couple estimate they spend as much as $300 or $400 a year on treats, gifts and gas, though most of the presents they deliver come from parents beforehand. The payoff can't be measured.
"When you come in and surprise little kids, when you're looking through your hair and beard and you see their eyes, that's the most riveting, memorable thing," Olson said. "You are a symbol that they talk about all year. It's magic, it's fantasy."
Olson encourages the fantasy by adding his own touches, like checking his naughty and nice list on an iPod and letting children pet a sleeping "Rudolph" — a real reindeer hide partially concealed in a pillowcase.
"You play the fantasy right to the hilt," he said. "It's all great fun."
But one thing he never, ever does is let kids think he's THE Santa.
"I tell them I'm Santa's helper, that he has helpers all over the world," he said. "Because if they see another Santa on TV they'll start to wonder."
Though health issues have kept him and wife Sandy home for the last two Christmases, Olson still plays the role for children who drop in.
"The other day they asked me if I would run to the store to get candy canes for two little girls," said Monta Rey Huskey, a longtime family friend and neighbor. "Even with all his problems and all her problems they still have the Christmas spirit."