James Rada, Jr.
Twenty-five years ago, John Kinnaird of Thurmont, thought he would give his kids a Christmas surprise. He dressed as Santa Claus and climbed onto the roof of his house, so he could pretend to climb down the chimney when his kids could see him.
Someone else saw him on the roof.
“Some neighbors saw me and asked if I would play Santa for their kids at their house,” Kinnaird said.
And with that, a new Santa’s helper was born.
Nowadays, Kinnaird dons his Santa outfit 25 to 30 times a year to help the jolly old elf in Frederick and its neighboring counties. His events generally start the first week in November and run through Christmas.
Another Santa’s helper, Frank Schmersahl of Emmitsburg, has been playing Santa even longer than Kinnaird, with 31 years of service. “In those [early] days, I had to wear padding,” Schmersahl said with a Santa-like laugh.
Schmersahl plays Santa a handful of times each season, including playing the chief of the North Pole Fire Department at the Frederick County Fire Museum during the Museums by Candlelight event in December.
His favorite event is acting as Santa’s stand-in during Emmitsburg’s Evening of Christmas Spirit. He’s been the event’s Santa since it began. He was a member of the Emmitsburg Business Professionals Association (EBPA) back then and volunteered for the job, which he hasn’t regretted. He is now seeing the children of children for whom he once played Santa.
“When Santa greets you by name, you better straighten up,” Schmersahl said.
Kinnaird’s favorite event of the season is Christmas in Thurmont. “That’s when you get to see all of the local kids and a lot of the adults and talk to them,” Kinnaird said.
That’s important for Kinnaird. He wants to be there for the community. He even asks for contributions to the Thurmont Food Bank in lieu of payment.
Schmersahl said he has to be careful not to promise anything when he’s sitting in for Santa. “You tell them: ‘We’ll see what we can do,’” Schmersahl said. He must also remain cool if he happens to have a “leaker” on his lap.
Despite all of the good cheer and laughing children, both men said the hardest part of playing Santa is speaking with a child who has a sad story. A relative has died. A parent has lost a job or been in an accident.
“Those are the ones that really drive home the problem some families have,” Kinnaird said. “You tell them you can’t make people better or find jobs for them. What you can do is bring some joy into their lives.”
Both men said their ideal Santa from television and the movies is Edmund Gwenn, who played Santa in the original version of Miracle on 34th Street. Many people must agree with them since Gwenn won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance.
“To me, he is Santa Claus,” Kinnaird said.