The Rim Country Home To Santa

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Apart from the mildly naughty joke he tells about Bruno, the Brown-Nosed Reindeer, this guy certainly seems like the real Santa.

He's got the white beard and cherry-red nose.

He's got the belly that shakes like a bowlful of jelly.

He Ho-Ho-Hos like nobody's business.

And his driver's license and all his credit cards identify him as Santa.

Who knew Santa lives in Strawberry? And as it turns out, he's been there for about 11 years now, officiating at Pine's holiday lighting ceremonies and letting every child in the P-S hamlets crawl up on his knee and pull his beard and recite their Christmas-gift list.

"One kid asked me for his own airplane," Santa recalled. "And I get asked for all kinds of animals. The other night, someone asked for a hippopotamus. I suggested we go to the llama farm and see a llama, but he wasn't thrilled with that."

Being Santa isn't always such a lighthearted experience, though.

"It can get very emotional," Santa said. "I have talked to at least 200 children this year, and it doesn't matter if they're four years old or 16 or 17. They come up, they sit on my knee, they talk to me. To them it's like talking to an old friend. They're very sincere. And about 99 percent of them give me hugs, which is the best part of the job."

Santa gets 100 percent hugs, however, from the many physically and mentally challenged children he meets every holiday season.

"They are such loving kids. They just don't want to leave you. They hang on and don't want to let go."

Outside of the Yuletide season, Santa said, the same children who clamor over him at Christmas don't know Santa from Jack Frost.

"When I put the red outfit on, something happens that's like magic, and I'm the most popular guy on the planet at that point in time. But when I'm not wearing the red outfit, I'm just another large fellow with a beard."

Although Santa's parents were residents of Tolleson at the time, he was born in Seattle because the local doctor would not perform the necessary Cesarean birth.

"My mother didn't know where else to go but her own home town," Santa said.

Not many people know it, but Santa, 57, is not his real name. His parents dubbed him Donald Burton Clemit.

"When my beard turned white several years ago, someone called me Santa, and it took off," he said. "I've been Santa ever since. Even my wife and mother call me Santa now."

The only reason he didn't have his name legally changed to Santa, Santa says, is that in Arizona, you can select any name you want on your driver's license and many other forms of other identification.

"A few years ago, I was at a driver's license bureau in the Valley, and all of my identification had 'Santa' on it. The man said, 'We need to change your driver's license to Santa. In the state of Arizona, as long as you don't change your Social Security number and you aren't defrauding anyone, you can use whatever name you choose, including your last name.'

It was long before that "back farther than I can remember," he says that he fell in love with the Rim country.

"My dad went to grade school here, and my grandfather drove the Overland stages the old mechanical trucks from Globe to Winslow, and then he sat up on Diamond Point Lookout as a fire ranger. So my family has a lot of history here.

"My dream has always been to live up here, because I'm a real fan of nature," Santa said. "When I was 11 or 12 years old, my family would drive me up, drop me off, and let me camp alone for a week at a time. I love to sleep out under the stars, sit and eat watercress, play with the wild turkeys and bear."

In 1990, Santa finally figured out a way to move to this beloved neck of the pines: by composing and producing his own music CDs, and by selling commercial and residential real estate. (Santa now works for Century 21/Woodland Realty, because his off season lasts a whopping 364 days.)

Just a few more questions before you hit the sky, Santa.

How do you manage to get to every house in the world, carrying presents for every child in the world, in a single night?

"I'll be quite honest with you," Santa whispered. "I have a lot of helpers."

And what's the greatest challenge about being Santa?

"Trying to live up to the expectations so many children have, and just being genuine and living up to Santa's name. Heck, I've been Santa for so long now, if someone were to call me Don, I wouldn't even turn around. It doesn't ring a bell anymore with me.

"I'm Santa," Santa said. "Just Santa."

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