MANATEE -- After 25 years, he still gets nervous.
Butterflies, big as reindeer, form in John O'Connor's stomach each time the 73-year-old Duette resident begins a new season of playing Santa Claus.
"You would think after 25 years he wouldn't get nervous, but he gets a bit of stage fright until he gets going," Linda "Mrs. Claus" O'Connor said Friday of her husband, who is getting set this year for his quarter-century mark of serving as Santa for thousands of children and adults in the Duette area, located about 30 miles from downtown Bradenton in northeastern Manatee County.
"He'll be asking me, 'Do my buttons line up? Is my beard OK. Is my hat on right?'" Linda O'Connor said.
Starting in early December, O'Connor has 30 or so Santa engagements on his December calendar.
His weekends are crazy, said his wife, who has accompanied him as Mrs. Claus the last decade.
"I think we might actually lose a little weight because we are running every second starting in December," Linda O'Connor said. "We miss meals. All the weekends are incredibly busy, and the weekdays are starting to pick up now that John isn't working so much."
Added Mrs. Claus on what makes her husband a beloved Santa: "I think it's being Irish. He's got that twinkle in his eyes when he is smiling or laughing. He's just got the 'Ho, ho, ho!'"
A love of kids required
O'Connor's first Santa "gig' came 25 years ago when some Duette neighbors knew he had a white beard and asked him if he would play Santa for their relatives from up north who had small children. He said, "Yeah, sure."
"They got the Santa suit for me, and it went OK," O'Connor said. "Some of the kids who attend the Duette School saw me and starting saying Santa lives in Duette, and we have seen him. Their teacher called me to come to their Christmas party that year, and from there it took off."
O'Connor's twinkle really shines when he talks about the kids he has met over a quarter century of Christmases.
"I love to be around kids," O'Connor said. "Just the excitement in the faces and the conversation the kids have to Santa. They are so honest. Sometimes they tell me sad stories. Sometimes when I have asked what they want for Christmas I have heard, 'My daddy and mommy to be together' or 'My daddy to come home.' It's reality."
One of O'Connor's best memories is visiting a nursing home and having a 5-year-old girl turn a corner with her parents and see him.
"She immediately began running and screamed, 'Mom, dad, it's Santa!'" O'Connor recalled. "She was so excited. She rushed into my arms, and we hugged. She was so happy. I gave her a toy out of my sack. I've never forgotten that moment."
Time to get the perm
To get ready for being Santa, every year between Oct. 15 and Nov. 15, O'Connor gets his beard permed.
O'Connor always goes to the same stylist, Diane Warmus of Salon East in Parrish.
This year, the big day was Oct. 17.
"If I don't get it curled, I look like a Bowery bum," O'Connor said of the beard, which will stay curly throughout the season.
His was the first, and is still the only, beard Warmus ever permed.
"I guess it was a request that we made a couple of years ago because Linda had used Diane for several hair perms, and Diane more or less accepted the challenge of doing Santa's beard," O'Connor said. "We had so much fun, and it turned out so well that we more or less have gone back to her."
After the season, O'Connor cuts the beard back to about a half-inch with an electric trimmer. Then, he lets it grow until the first week in April, allowing him to have a short beard for St. Patrick's Day, when he plays a leprechaun.
After St. Paddy's, he trims it back again then lets it grow out until after Christmas.
O'Connor is on his second Santa suit, having worn out the elbows of the first. The costumes cost anywhere from $60 to $3,000 and Linda O'Connor presented her husband this second suit several years ago priced in the middle of the pack.
"I do have a couple of backup suits," O'Connor added.
When to see him
Most of the places O'Connor goes to as Santa are private functions. For instance, every year for the past 20, he has played Santa at the Bradenton Country Club in mid-December. The club members dress in their finest, and O'Connor helps them have one of their most fun evenings of the year.
He also performs for Nurses on Call in Lakeland, Sebring and Winter Haven.
But there is one place in Manatee County that is open to the public.
At 6 p.m. on Dec. 19, O'Connor will be giving out gifts at the Duette Volunteer Fire Department, which is on State Road 62 in Duette, about a half mile west of S.R. 39, or about 18 miles from Parrish.
"The kids will have a great time," O'Connor said.
Parents should call Jim Leonard of the Duette Fire Department at 941-737-9607 to make arrangements so your child's name could be put on the gift that O'Connor hands out.
Santa wouldn't want it any different.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter@RichardDymond.