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25 Questions with Santa Claus 

click to enlarge Mike Ihrig, of Penfield, has been "morphing" seasonally into Santa Claus since the 1980s.

PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE

Mike Ihrig, of Penfield, has been "morphing" seasonally into Santa Claus since the 1980s.

Yes, Rochester, there is a Santa Claus.

He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and when he’s not overseeing things at the North Pole, he resides in a modest yellow house on Penfield Road and drives a black subcompact SUV with the license plate “BLITZEN.”

He goes by Mike Ihrig when he’s there and claims to be 473 years old, give or take 400 years. But when he greeted visitors at his door recently in his Saint Nick suit, there was little doubt he was who he said he was.

His eyes twinkled. He had a beard as white as snow. He jingled when he walked.

“There are way better looking Santa Clauses, I’m not going to lie,” Ihrig said. “I went to my first Santa convention last year and I see some of these guys and it’s like, ‘Boy, they look great.’ But I will say this, when I morph into Santa, I’m Santa.”



click to enlarge When he's not traveling on his magical sleigh, Mike Ihrig gets around in a subcompact SUV with a "BLITZEN" license plate. - PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • When he's not traveling on his magical sleigh, Mike Ihrig gets around in a subcompact SUV with a "BLITZEN" license plate.
Ihrig first “morphed” in 1971 for his niece and nephew in a Santa Claus suit made by Mrs. Claus, who goes by Karen and had married her Kris Kringle a few weeks earlier.

But he has been morphing seasonally in earnest ever since a man walked into his former Rochester shop, Mike’s Magic and Merriment on Dewey Avenue, in 1987 calling himself “a magic Santa.” The notion struck Ihrig that he could be that too.

He went to Orleans County to see Elizabeth Babcock, who made Santa suits for the famous Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School that was founded in Albion.

“I said, ‘If I’m going to be Santa, I want the best suit you have,’” Ihrig said.

click to enlarge Mike Ihrig's sifts through his wardrobe of Santa Claus suits in his basement. The Big Guy has to change clothes every once in a while, you know. - PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • Mike Ihrig's sifts through his wardrobe of Santa Claus suits in his basement. The Big Guy has to change clothes every once in a while, you know.
He left with a top-of-the-line, custom-made suit with trim of white rabbit fur that set him back $400, and a new purpose to “try to bring joy and happiness to the world.”

Since then, Ihrig has done the mall circuit and private and public parties, and, for a time, was the resident Big Guy at Santa’s Workshop in North Pole, N.Y., in the Adirondacks.

These days, though, he mostly meets children from around the world in virtual visits arranged through an online service called Santa’s Club and through his own website, santasmagicalvisit.com.

He said he has 360 visits and counting on the books this season, with each lasting five to 10 minutes. That day, he was preparing to meet a little girl named Brooklyn from Benton, Texas.

click to enlarge Mike Ihrig entertains children around the world through virtual visits from his "workshop" in the basement of his Penfield home. - PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • Mike Ihrig entertains children around the world through virtual visits from his "workshop" in the basement of his Penfield home.
Ihrig greets them from his basement, where he sits against a merry backdrop of toys, books, snow globes, and animatronic figures that he has amassed over the years.

The appeal to parents and children alike, he said, is not having to stand in line and getting quality time with Santa Claus.

“Go to (one of the malls) and watch the Santa,” he said. “If he’s got a line, he’s got about a minute to talk to those children at most. And here, they get five full minutes. That’s a long time. Now, with the ones who get 10 minutes? Whoa.”

Santa gave CITY an hour, so we put him on the spot by asking him everything you’d ever want to know about him.

The following interview was edited for brevity and clarity. Santa can be quite loquacious. He is a jolly old elf, after all.

Where were you born and when?

Rochester. My birthday is Sept. 2. I’m 473 years old.

What was your first job?

Recreation leader at Barnard Park playground in Greece. My first summer out of Marshall High School. I think I got $1.18 an hour.

How do you relax?

I love bowling. I bowl two leagues a week. I build Legos. I used to color a lot, but I don’t color as much as I used to. I watch wrestling. I know a lot of people don’t think it’s real, but you fall on the floor. I’ve fallen on the floor. It’s real.

Name three things you would want on a deserted island.

A set of magic books. An oven to make cookies. Mrs. Claus. But I don’t know that she would want to come.

click to enlarge Mike Ihrig greets his virtual visitors against a backdrop of toys, books, snow globes, and animatronic figures that he has amassed over the years. - PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • Mike Ihrig greets his virtual visitors against a backdrop of toys, books, snow globes, and animatronic figures that he has amassed over the years.
Are there any houses you don’t go to on Christmas?

The White House. I try to stay out of that stuff.

What is the last book you read?

“Peter and the Starcatchers.” I also read a lot of comic books.

What is your favorite Christmas carol?

(Singing) You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen, Comet and Cupid . . .

Which is your favorite reindeer?

Blitzen. Blitzen is the fastest. And Blitzen is a female.

What is your biggest indulgence?

I don’t think I have one. That’s why, for my size, my blood pressure is like 128 over 70-something. But you know, when you go to the doctor’s office it flies off the hook. I went to the VA and they told me I have “white coat syndrome.”

You served in the military?

I was in the Coast Guard. . . . I spent two tours in Alaska. I was on board a buoy tender, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Balsam in Adak, Alaska, in the Aleutian Islands. I was out in Dutch Harbor. All those places you see in “Deadliest Catch,” I was there, man.

If you could go back 453 years, what would you tell your 20-year-old self?

I never knew I was going to become what I am today, but I knew in my mind that I was going to end up being something. . . You know, everything just progresses in a natural way.

What do you remember about Christmas growing up?

We lived on Maplewood Drive. I had a brother and a sister and I was the oldest. It was Christmas Eve and me and my brother tippy-toed down the stairs and my father was trying to build a dollhouse and it was metal and I hear him, “Oh son of a . . . !” We ran right back upstairs. Ho-ho-ho! Then, I remember I was a Boy Scout. Everyone went through that phase. One year I was going on a camp out for the weekend and I needed a sleeping bag. So, we went over to my grandpa’s house, and my aunt gave me an official Boy Scout sleeping bag for Christmas. . . . Well, that was the worst sleeping bag I ever slept in. I froze my jingle bells off. There was no insulation in that thing at all.

What’s the strangest request for a gift you’ve ever gotten?

I was at Marketplace Mall. I had a couple come up. The girl sat on one knee. The guy sat on the other. She says, “I want a ring, Santa, and he won’t give me the ring.” I said, “Lookit, there’s a jewelry store right there. There’s a jewelry story over there. And there’s one behind me.” Sometimes you get children who want ponies. I say, “You really want a pony?” Then I find out their parents own a ranch.

Do you still smoke a pipe?

No. A bubble pipe.

Do you still traffic in coal?

I never have. Why should the blame be put on me whether a child is naughty or nice? I don’t believe in that. I think, a lot of times, I’m the fall guy. All Santas are. Parents are like, “Tell Johnny that he’d better do better in school.” I even had one dad who’s son wasn’t good enough at soccer for him. It’s like, come on, that’s not nice. I don’t like being the fall guy so I try to work around that. Here’s the deal, I expect you to be as nice and good as you can, but if you’re not, you’ll know that that person who gave you those underpants or that toothbrush that you didn’t want, then you know that something was up and old Santa Claus caught me.

Do you get anything for Christmas?

Last year I got Lego sets.

What would you like? What is your Christmas wish?

I’d like world peace. Everybody would. It would be nice for people to just relax a little bit.

What is your most memorable gift?

When I was at the North Pole (N.Y.), I had a mother come up and she goes, “My little boy has stopped sucking his thumb and using his binky.” She gave me a candy bar, which I put up my sleeve. When he came and showed me the binky, I produced the candy bar and said, “You give me that and I’ll give you this.” And he did. The woman was all happy. I still have it.

click to enlarge Mike Ihrig holds the binky a little boy gave him while Ihrig was Santa Claus. - PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • Mike Ihrig holds the binky a little boy gave him while Ihrig was Santa Claus.

Who or what is the love of your life?

My wife and my children and my grandkids. But I have to tell you that I tell all the little children they’re Santa’s angels and I love them. Very seldom do I not tell a little child that I love them. Because they gotta have that.

What does Santa’s breathe smell like?

Peppermint. Red Bird mints. Made in the United States. But sometimes root beer.

Is that your drink of choice?

No. Coca-Cola Classic.

What is your pet peeve?

Why do people have to put pictures of the food they eat on that Facebook thing?

Who do you follow on social media?

What’s social media? I got to tell you, I don’t have a Twitter thingy. I’m not even really good at texting.

What’s your idea of happiness?

I guess the way I am right now.

What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?

Every year on Dec. 26, I trim my beard. . . . I have to be able to kiss Mrs. Claus. There are rules, you know.

David Andreatta is CITY's editor. He can be reached at dandreatta@wxxi.org.
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