Heart of Treasure Valley

There are toys and pizza, but this Santa brings a greater good to Payette

The first stop he makes is at the gas station. That’s his phone booth, so to speak, to change his identity. Ducking behind his truck in broad daylight, he dons the white beard and the fuzzy red hat, the fake reading glasses and the white gloves. He’s already wearing the requisite red suit. He settles it into place.

When the transformation is complete, he parks near the driveway into Whitney Arms, a low-income mobile home park in Payette.

He says: “I play the Santa Claus part, and I try to be Santa Claus” — as he has been for the children in this place for the past 25 years, every year.

The man behind the beard is Peter Schott of Boise restaurant fame. Peter Schott’s Restaurant in the former Idanha Hotel was a Downtown fixture for 27 years and was considered one of Boise’s finest dining spots in its day. The restaurant closed in 2004. (Another claim to fame: Legendary jazz musician Gene Harris tickled the ivories for years in Peter Schott’s Lounge.)

Peter and his wife, Emily, have owned the 49-unit mobile home park in Payette all these years, part of their plan for financial diversification after their several restaurants closed.

As he walks down the driveway Tuesday, Peter belts out an Austrian-accented “ho, ho, ho” and rings a bell loudly enough to alert kids watching TV behind closed doors. He is late, so the kids are already gathered — crammed, that would be — into an empty mobile home that has become party central for the occasion. Pretty much since last year, the children have been waiting for this day.

“They talk about it all year round — ‘Are you still going to do Christmas this year? Are you going to have presents?’ ... The kids wouldn't do without it.”

Dressing up as Santa is way beyond the call of duty for most landlords. But this party is not negotiable. For either the givers or the receivers.

“The smiles of the kids is what pays for it. And the babies. They give me a kiss or give me a hug. They’re so sweet, such beautiful kids.

“... To me, it has become part of Christmas all these years.”

Outside the mobile home, it’s freezing. But inside, the windows sweat and the excitement is palatable. There is barely room for Santa to squeeze in, but they make room.

“And, of course, the older ones (whisper) ‘Peter, is that you? It’s you, right?’”

Santa makes the kids sing a very tentative “Jingle Bells”; they do a little better through a chorus of “Feliz Navidad.” Santa does a solo version of “Oh Tannenbaum” — in robust German — before they call it good with three languages for one holiday.

“They’re just like our kids. They’re all like family, an extended family, all 70 of them.”

The kids have been discussing all year what they want to eat (pizza) and drink (Fanta), and Peter serves up a batch of homemade posole — a traditional Mexican holiday soup featuring hominy — for the adults.

At first, the mothers of the children were skeptical of Peter’s skill in the culinary department, not knowing his reputation, and anyway, how in the world would he know how to make posole as well as they do? “So they came to the party, and they tasted it,” says Emily, “and they went home and got pots to bring (leftovers) to their husbands.”

After the food it’s time for the presents. Throughout the year, Emily has been shopping for little gifts that she sorts by age group. Each kid will get one toy, including teenagers, who get chocolate.

Adriana Hinojosa is a mother who lives at the park. “It’s Santa, you know. The kids get what they want. They keep the believing of Santa.”

Emily holds up the toys, one at at time, and looks for the eager eyes that claim it. “I’ll take that one for my little brother,” says one young boy.

The adults are grateful. Emily has heard that the moms take the presents, wrap them up again and set them aside for Christmas Day. She wouldn’t be surprised. It’s the time of year most parents are laid off from the fields and the onion sheds are closed.

Peter: “I do feel the spirit of Christmas when I do that with the kids. Because you know it is such a modest environment, it really is. …

“It fits in perfectly … The kids, they’re looking forward, just like I did for my Christmas...”

• • • 

Peter grew up in the Austrian Alps in a home with a wood stove, an outhouse and no running water. This was Europe after World War II. Lean, lean years, he says.

“So I understand what (their lives are) like. I can communicate with (the kids) because I can speak on their level. I don’t even think they’re really poor, because I had less. I had much less than that.

“... So what I see out there is this: These are very happy kids; in fact, they’re happier than most kids because they have their little village. Aunts and uncles are there; families are there. It’s like a pueblo in Mexico.”

And like those kids, Peter has his special memories that bring Christmas alive.

Peter helped his mother in the kitchen, and, with his father, went on a search for the tree, tromping around in the snowy forest with a sled and a saw.

“(My father) was a stickler for perfect trees.”

In Europe, Saint Nicholas is the main gift-giver; he is an early Christian saint known for secretly giving gifts. On Dec. 6, Saint Nicholas would visit children dressed in his elegant brocade and bishop’s hat. He came with his sidekick, a fearful-looking devil who rattled chains and scared the kids — incentive enough to be good throughout the year.

“And so if you were like naughty, instead of nice, during the year, you got your pick, right? ...

“We looked forward all year round (to the arrival of Saint Nicholas) and to me, these kids are the same way. They like the idea of Saint Nicholas showing up, right?”

The Christ Child, on the other hand, magically decorated the tree behind closed doors, left presents and flew out the window on Christmas Eve. After the Christmas Eve dinner of Frankfurter Würstl and noodle soup, Peter’s father would torment his sons by casually wondering whether the Christ Child was even going to bother to showing up this year. But maybe they should look, just in case?

He would fling open the door and the sight would take young Peter’s breath away.

“So you had a perfect noble tree — I mean, a beauty, right? — with the branches exactly the same, symmetrically coming out. You had an angel on top, a star on top; then you had the tinsel hanging down, which was shimmering because when you walked by there was movement.”

There were colored ornaments made of meringue and chocolates hung in the tree and candles set ablaze on the ends of the branches. (Before the term “fire hazard” was invented.)

“The candles, the live candles and — you know what made the whole thing? Fourth of July sparklers. You know what a sensational deal that was? You walk in there and you see that. They had like 10 of the sparklers going on at the same time. ...

“To me that was Christmas.”

For all of that — and what can top sparklers on a tree? — the best of Peter’s Christmas memories is when he was 10 years old. That’s when he started working.

For four years, Peter worked as a full-time caddy to a fanatical golfer, the owner of a restaurant where Peter would later become his chef. He started chef’s school when he was 14.

“(When I was a caddy), I would make about 4,000 shillings a season, between spring until the snow fell. In dollars, that’s hard to tell — but it was a ton of money. To me it was.

“And then, my biggest pleasure was I would take the entire amount — I never spent any — and spend it all on Christmas presents for the family. To me, that was the finest time for Christmas. ... That was the ultimate of Christmas.

“It’s the giving that is so — that warms your heart. The giving, not the receiving.”

• • • 

Both Peter, 69, and Emily, 67, left their mark on the Treasure Valley’s culinary landscape, once owning and operating five restaurants in Boise, Caldwell and Idaho City. They have all been sold, and now Peter is a real estate agent for Silvercreek Realty. In his downtime, the Schotts make the hour-and-10-minute drive to the mobile home park, four or five days a week, for repairs, maintenance, refurbishing empty trailers.

They know the kids and the kids know them.

Peter: “They are an extension of our family. ... They really are.”

Emily: “We have huge feelings toward them. I hang out with the kids ...”

Even so, what Peter and Emily really hope Santa brings the kids is something far bigger than the toys, far bigger than the pizza, far bigger than just one party.

Peter: “You know what I hope for them for Christmas is that they will find a way out of the mobile home park. That they will stay in school. ...

“What I wish for them is to understand that … whatever you do for work, you do a good job. Stick with that, make an income, stay in school, go to college. Give it what it takes to be successful. That’s what I wish for them.”

And they hope that in their little Christmas party, even — and especially — in the little mobile home park, the true spirit of Christmas shines through the tarnish.

“Christmas these days is so commercial it almost makes you sick. (But) that part (at the trailer park) is just fun, because we don’t have to do it. We don’t have to it; we have no obligation to do it.

“(And) it warms your heart to do it, that’s what it does.

“It’s festive and to me, that’s Christmas. To see their smiling faces; they’re so wonderful, these kids are the best. If we can give them some joy around Christmas time ...

“That’s what it’s all about.”

At the party, the pizza leftovers are distributed along with the toys, and people start to leave. Veronica Lopez, 11, has lived at the park her entire life. She declared the party awesome — and what made it awesome was that “he” dressed up like Santa.

“(Santa) makes it really great. Usually we don’t get to see Santa in real life. He gives us all presents.

He fills our hearts.”

Katherine Jones: 208-377-6414, @IDS_Photography