The Santa Spirit

James Smith Jr. (Clarion Ledger)We’re remembering two men who loved to bring joy to children (and adults, too) by playing Santa Claus.

James Smith Jr. “had a heart as big as the state in which he was born” – Texas – “although he would never openly admit to it,” according to the obituary published in the Clarion Ledger of Jackson, Mississippi.

“Every December would find him with his snow-white hair and beard grown out and him donning his Santa suit for ‘personal appearances’ at schools, nursing homes, various children’s homes and Christmas parties, as well as the occasional one-on-one at the grocery store or gas station.”

The Clinton, Mississippi, resident, who died Nov. 30 at age 84, was raised by parents who exemplified Santa’s giving spirit.

“Smith told vivid stories of growing up in the depression-era and of how his father opened their home to other family members who had fallen on hard times,” the obit said.

John J. “Janko” Stolar Jr. played Santa Claus for various organizations and at children's homes for nearly 60 of his 82 years, according to the obituary written by Janet Romaker for the Toledo Blade.

“As Santa Claus, Mr. Stolar would deliver not only gifts, but the sparkling joy of the season,” Romaker wrote.

“On Christmas Eve, after fasting all day, the Stolar family, with roots in Austria-Hungary, would share homemade lentil and mushroom soups, breads and pastries. Amid the hubbub of the holiday celebration, Mr. Stolar would slip away, returning as Santa. Mr. Stolar inherited the role of Santa from his father, John Stolar Sr., and he wore the same suit that had come over on the boat with the immigrant.”

Romaker relates stories about Stolar acquiring a “$10,000 Santa costume - with real fur trim and a beard made from yak’s hair” and taking lessons “in how to apply makeup to transition to Mr. Claus.”

Two months before he died Dec. 2, the ailing Stolar gave the Santa suit to his son to continue the family tradition.

“You never know how many children’s lives you touch until you put that suit on,” Stolar used to tell his family.

“No amount of money, Mr. Stolar would say, could equal the happiness you feel when you light up the life of a child at Christmastime.”

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This post was contributed by Alana Baranick, a freelance obituary writer. She is director of the Society of Professional Obituary Writers and chief author of Life on the Death Beat: A Handbook for Obituary Writers.