“I truly believe there is a Santa Claus” said Rep. Kerry Bentivolio.
The Michigan Republican, likely the first former Santa Claus impersonator and reindeer-farm owner ever to serve on Capitol Hill, was in the process of moving out—his constituents had given the first-term Tea Partier a lump of coal in August when he lost his bid for reelection in the Republican primary—but he took time to riff on Christmas and to recall his adventures as Jolly St. Nick and its impact on his life, in a talk with The Daily Beast amid the cardboard boxes and bubble wrap.
The congressman traces his belief in Santa Claus back 40 years, when he was a student going to college “on the GI Bill.” Bentivolio recounted the story while smoking American Spirit cigarettes and tapping the ashes into a souvenir ashtray that commemorated Operation Desert Shield. He said he wasn’t getting his checks regularly from the Veterans Administration at the time. One night, after a friend took him out for a couple of beers, he went home and opened the refrigerator to find just “two heels of a loaf of bread and one egg.” The future congressman also had some spaghetti but no sauce. So, feeling “a little loopy” from beers, he sat down and wrote a letter to Santa Claus. A couple of weeks later, a local reporter, who had gone down to the post office to see all the letters addressed to St. Nick, called asking “why a guy who just served his country in Vietnam, came home, and went to college was writing Santa a letter.”
Bentivolio “told [the reporter] the truth…. I don’t have any money, I haven’t gotten a check from Uncle Sam for my GI Bill and literally open the refrigerator and showed him a bare refrigerator.” And, he confided, the situation left him “a little depressed” as well. The next day, the story behind Bentivolio’s letter to Santa appeared in the Lansing Journal and he started receiving bags of groceries and Christmas cards with 10-dollar bills inside. It made a big impact on him and he realized, “Wow, there really is a Santa, at least in the hearts of some people.”
The incident sparked his belief in Santa, but he would have to wait nearly two decades before dressing up as Jolly St. Nick.
The impetus for the impersonation came when Bentivolio’s hometown of Milford, Michigan, was on the rocks. As the congressman put it, “Businesses were doing poorly... there was a serial killer that murdered a couple of girls and a kid run over by a train.” As he described it, “You could tell that the town’s morale [was] pretty low and I decided I was going to play Santa and maybe cheer things up.” So Bentivolio found a custom-made, old-fashioned, Victorian-era Santa suit, put it on and wandered around downtown Milford proclaiming “Merry Christmas” and offering greetings of “Ho Ho Ho” to business owners. Soon thereafter, Bentivolio was asked to play Santa in downtown Milford and became a professional.
Bentivolio’s shtick differed from that of most other Santas in one major way: He didn’t wear red and white. The congressman bristles at those who think Santa Claus should wear red and white: “If you read The Night Before Christmas, there’s nothing in there saying he was actually dressed in red and white.” Bentivolio said the modern conception of the costume is merely the result of the marketing efforts of Coca-Cola during the 1920s and 1930s. Instead, he tried to “change things up, to give people another perspective” as he thought “a lot of people lose interest in this typical, everyday Santa.” Nevertheless, even a customer who was “a red and white traditionalist” could still book Bentivolio’s reindeer—without him playing Santa.
Yes, the future lawmaker built up a full-service Santa business with a sleigh pulled by real reindeer. At its peak, his business made as much as $30,000 a year—provided he worked the entire month of December. This despite fierce competition—within two years of Bentivolio being the “first guy in Michigan to get reindeer and get them to pull a sled,” he had three competitors.
Alas, it appears Bentivolio won’t be able to return to work as Santa after he leaves Congress. Not only has he not “done Santa in four years,” but he has sold his reindeer as well. His “chief elf for the last 20 years” was having trouble taking care of the reindeer while the congressman was in Washington, so he had to sell them. Bentivolio had turned down the best offer for his reindeer because accepting would have involved selling the animals to Texas for sport hunting. Instead, he “let ‘em go pretty cheap.”
Santa wasn’t the only costumed character Bentivolio portrayed. He once experimented with dressing as “Hilda the Wicked Witch” as a way to expand his business to Halloween. Bentivolio appeared in public as Hilda, wearing a costume that featured a mask with a bulbous nose complete with a hairy mole at its tip, a wig, an ugly dress and hands smeared with Vaseline. It didn’t go well. “I was a terrible wicked witch,” he admitted. So he decided just to stick with Santa Claus.
The experience, though, did create some political obstacles for Bentivolio. It was used as a campaign issue against him: He said one opponent accused him of being “creepy,” and he recalled that a bunch of union members once dressed up as Santa Claus outside polling places in an attempt to dissuade voters from casting their ballots for Bentiviolio. The outgoing congressman bristled at being labeled “creepy” and he was disheartened that his Santa impersonation was being used as a political attack.
“It’s kinda sad that they’d beat someone up because they’d dress as Santa” he said sadly. Bentiviolio said he never saw the downside of his costume caper, and wondered why his campaign staff “didn’t want me to dress up anymore.” After all, as Santa, he brought joy to people young and old throughout the holiday season, and he was befuddled as to why that would make him the subject of ridicule. “I don’t know why anyone who hasn’t been in my shoes would make fun of this,” he said.
As the interview wound down, Bentivolio reflected on what may have motivated him to dress as Santa. “I am a straight-laced guy; I’ve never done anything I’m ashamed of,” he said. “I really have a boring life and maybe the Santa gig and Hilda the Witch was a way to spice it up. Other people do some strange things. I just get the kids together and we go out and have a lot of fun.”
Now that he’s departing Congress, Bentivolio is thinking about writing a children’s book about his experience. Its working title is Santa Claus Goes to Washington.