PIERCE — He’s making a list and checking it twice, gonna find out who’s naughty and nice.
That’s right, Michael Smits is coming to town.
Dressed in a familiar red and white suit and sporting a natural white beard, the rural Kewaunee County man embraces portraying Santa Claus throughout the area during the holiday season.
“I like seeing the excitement on people’s faces and the fun they have when they see Santa coming down the road or in a store or at a house,” said Smits, 67, who bears a strong resemblance to the traditional image of a Santa Claus. “Getting out of the car and walking in somewhere with my suit and kids saying, ‘Hi Santa!’ is great. Or even adults rolling down their windows and saying hi, it’s fun.
“I was even wearing my Santa suit on Halloween and saying, ‘Merry Halloween!’ Being recognized as St. Nick and making people smile during the holidays is nice. Sometimes children, especially little kids with their parents, will grab my leg and hug me. It’s the magic of Santa Claus.”
Diane Woelfel of De Pere witnessed that magic firsthand. She heard about Smits and asked him to come to her house as Santa Claus on Christmas Eve in 2015 to surprise her two grandchildren.
“They opened the door and when they saw him, their eyes were huge,” she said. “They looked at us and went, ‘Santa!’ He came in with bells ringing. Even my kids were like, ‘Oh my gosh!’ It was a fun evening.”
Woelfel contacted Smits two months ago to make sure he’d be available to surprise the same two grandchildren again this Christmas Eve.
“They’re only little once, so I want to do it before they don’t believe in Santa Claus anymore,” she said. “It’s a fun Christmas tradition now. A great memory for everyone.”
Woelfel said Smits looks and acts like a real Santa Claus.
“He has that kind of character that makes it even better,” she said. “He came early and spent a lot of time. As far as visiting with the kids, he made the evening so special. Took time with each of them and made it special. We appreciated that. He was ever so sweet. He was just like Santa.”
Smits, whose countryside home is in the small town of Pierce, thought about portraying Santa Claus over the years, but it wasn’t until his beard turned white about six years ago that he gave it serious consideration. Then, a couple of years ago, an opportunity presented itself.
Smits and his wife were at the American Club in Kohler, and he saw a Santa Claus that inspired him to give it a try. So he contacted the club and they agreed to let him be Santa Claus, and his first event was a “Breakfast with Santa” in Kohler that same holiday season. He also booked several private home events, one of which was the Woelfel residence.
“Being Santa just came natural to me,” said Smits, who said he wasn’t nervous because he often preached in front of people several years ago as a missionary in the Philippines. “I’ve always gotten along with people, so Santa seemed like a normal thing.”
Smits embraced his role as Santa from the start.
“There were times I’d see a Salvation Army kettle and bell with no one around to ring it, and I’d put on my Santa suit and step in to ring the bell,” he said. “Sometimes I’d put on my suit and go in a restaurant out of the blue. They just love it, especially if kids are there. They’re all excited to see Santa.”
Smits joined the Santa for Hire group, and last year it assigned him to Riverside, Calif., for the Festival of Lights. He portrayed Santa there every day from Black Friday until Christmas Eve.
“I liked making children happy in Riverside, but being away from my family and the grandkids for the holidays, I missed that,” he said. “I’m glad to be staying in Wisconsin this year. There’s something about the snow and the winter and being here — it’s where Santa should be.”
Smits has made several Santa appearances this holiday season. He often brings along a red toy sack filled with small teddy bears in case the right occasion arises.
He said the thousands of children who’ve sat on his lap ask for a wide variety of things — ranging from video game consoles and cellphones to pogo sticks and lava lamps. “There are some who say all they want is for their mom or dad to get better because they’re sick,” he said.
Regardless what a child asks for, Smits said anyone portraying Santa Claus “has to want to do it.”
“You need to be a people person and be outgoing and care about kids,” he said. “Bring the joy of Santa right into their lives. So when they meet you they feel they’ve met the real Santa. You can’t just sit there. Each kid you meet has to be fresh and new. Taking an interest in each kid you meet. Not because you have to, but because you want to.
“People love Christmas, and people love Santa. I always remember that.”