“I have two things I say all the time,” says Ron Williams, 72, “One is, ‘It’s good to be Santa.’ The other is, ‘It’s good to be me.’” Williams has been a shopping-mall Santa for 16 years. His bushy, white beard is real; so are his rotund belly, ruddy cheeks and jolly laugh.
A 2002 financial setback occasioned Williams’s metamorphosis into Father Christmas. He was laid off from his customer-service job at a computer company in Eatontown. “I got my house ready for sale, because I couldn’t afford to keep it. My wife and I were raising three daughters. It was just before Christmas,” he says. (Fun fact: His wife’s name is Holly.)
A relative suggested that, if Williams grew a beard, he would look just like the Coca-Cola Santa Claus. The relative was right. On Williams’s first day at the Galleria in Red Bank, he saw “maybe a dozen kids.” Then word starting getting around. Now hundreds wait in line to see him during his four-hour weekend shifts, which start just after Thanksgiving and continue through Christmas Eve. He can’t go anywhere without being stopped for selfies—even in his street clothes.
Three hours after interviewing Williams, my cell phone is ringing. It’s Santa calling. He forgot to mention something. He wants me to assure parents that he keeps his hands visible when he is photographed with a child on his lap.
“In this day and age,” says Santa, “you have to be so careful.”
Despite the growing need for caution, the Brick Township resident still enjoys his seasonal job, passing out candy canes, comforting hesitant toddlers and fielding requests for Legos at the Galleria.
Such is Williams’s appeal that he has attained what may be a New Jersey Santa’s highest achievement: For several Decembers in the early 2000s, he was summoned to deliver holiday cheer to the Springsteen family.
“I used to go to their place in Rumson, before their kids aged out,” Williams says. “Bruce is a really nice guy. One time he said to me, ‘You know how they call me the Boss? I have to tell you—this time of year, you’re the boss.’”Click here to leave a comment