Fifteen years ago, Richard Cirelli stuck a bicycle in the snow on his front lawn and engineered Christmas lights so the wheels looked like they were spinning around.
The next year, he parked an old 1927 Essex out front and decorated it with more lights and spinning wheels.
He says: “It just started escalating from there. I just kind of got carried away.”
It now takes six or eight weeks for Richard to put up all his decorations — a guess: 75,000-100,00 lights, including a merry-go-round, 36 circuits and a hefty electric bill. He invents something new every year; this year, a homemade Thomas the Train will be chugging around the yard. Tour buses regularly swing through the cul-de-sac.
But for all the lights and show, the highlight of Richard’s Christmas season comes when he zips up a red suit trimmed in white fur.
“Why? You should try it sometime. You wouldn’t have to ask.”
• • •
The first time he wore the Santa suit, Richard had no idea what he was getting into.
“I thought, well, I’ll go walk around out front and wave to people. Then it started where they were bringing their kids in their pajamas and sitting on my lap out there. So I put a pop-up tent up so we could be out of the weather a little bit, and I put more decorations out.
“Things just kept getting out of hand. It was a runaway train after that.”
For more than 10 years, Santa receives visitors in a little shed on the side of Richard’s driveway. He’s only there about 10 days, but some years, 2,000 kids will sit on his lap. It’s breathtakingly big shoes to fill.
“It wasn’t so much that the kids thought I was Santa. It’s the way they look at you. … They’re in awe. …
“After I did it the first year, there were nights that Santa came in the house and he’d almost cry. Boy … there’s a lot of little kids out there that are hurting, and hurting bad.”
There are the kids who just want to be adopted. And the kids whose parents are divorced and they just want to see their mother.
“I had a little girl one year that came up; she said she didn’t want anything for Christmas. She just wanted her mom to have something. She said, ‘My mom never gets anything.’
“Stuff like that tears me up.”
That little girl’s mom went home with a gift card from Santa.
“I had a little girl one time tell me she just wants her parents to quit fighting. What do you tell a little child like that?
“I tell them Santa Claus can’t make them stop fighting. But he wants you to know that they may be angry with each other at the moment, but they still both love you very much.”
He stops to compose himself.
“I’m sorry. I can see that little girl and it tears me up. It really does. But you have to make them feel good about themselves. …”
In many ways, Richard thinks that might be Santa Claus’ highest calling.
“I don’t think it’s the presents. I think it’s the idea (that) he’s supposed to make you happy in your heart, you know, he’s supposed to make you feel good about yourself.
“That’s a role I like to play. I like to see them smile, I like to see them laugh.”
Especially teenagers. Santa makes a point of talking to teenagers when they come on tour buses.
“They’re at a point where they’re between Santy Claus, and having their own kids and Santa Claus. They’re in that little period when they don’t believe anymore and Christmas has very little meaning to them.
“I’ll gather a couple of them up, they’ll take pictures with cellphones, then I’ll talk to them. … ”
He’ll note how everyone is so happy this time of the year — even people standing in long lines at stores and employees who are working long hours.
“I say, you go there in the summertime, people are pushing and shoving, they’re frowning and grouchy because there’s no Christmas spirit. I tell them, try to remember in the summer, say something nice to somebody, smile at somebody. And they’ll pass it on. Maybe we can save a little bit of Christmas spirit in the summertime. …
“And teenagers are looking at you right in the eye. They don’t realize it, but they’re nodding their heads. They listen to you. Makes me feel good when I get off the bus.
“Maybe I touched one person. Out of 1,400 kids that sit on my lap, maybe one or two of them, I made a difference. That’s a good feeling.”
And another good feeling: Being part of a group that adopts families at Christmas every year. Richard, his long-time partner Connie Shumaker and a group of friends — organized by Connie’s daughter, Shannon Young — will take, this year, five families Christmas groceries, clothing, gift cards for gas and for restaurants, and shower them with presents.
“I tell you what. If people ever, ever want to do something that makes them feel good, do that one time. Take stuff to a family that really, really needs it. …
“People sometimes say that’s a whole lot of stuff for them, but a lot of these are kids who never had a nice Christmas. So if we embellish it, if we give them an abundance of stuff — go overboard — they’ll remember that Christmas all their lives.
“Maybe when they grow up they’ll remember that and do it for someone else. …
“Everyone should do it. I’m sorry, I get tore up. When you have a guy, a 6-foot, 300-pound guy, hugging Santa Claus and crying, you did something right.”
• • •
Richard is a former bar owner — “the worst business to be in” — who retired in 2002 after 22 years at Amalgamated Sugar. Right now, he has about a dozen cars, mostly antiques, waiting for his attention.
“I don’t golf. I don’t fish. I play with cars. … I call it junk cars … Just big piles of rust, I tear them apart and make automobiles out of them.”
He doesn’t feel like he’s got a lot of Santa requisites, beyond, he guffaws, his easy way of talking.
“(But) I’ve always been a firm believer in what goes around comes around. I guess back in the days they used to call it karma or whatever, but I believe in it. …
“Life is all give and take. You get back what you put in.”
Being Santa has reinforced that belief.
“You learn to pick out a lot of the good things and overlook a lot of the nasty stuff. … You learn to look at the bright.
“Kids today make me sad. You look at the kids today, they’re not smiling. … They walk around and they’re looking down at their phone. Nobody smiles. It’s kind of neat when they leave here and they’re smiling. …
“Everyone says to me, thank you so much for what you’re doing. I tell them, you don’t know how greedy I am, because I am getting so much more out of this than what your children are, believe me. It does make me feel good.”
One year, things were slow, so Santa chatted with passengers in a car that drove by, wished them Merry Christmas and then they were gone. The next year, the woman knocked on his door with tubs of candy canes.
“She says, you don’t remember me or anything, but last year, I brought my husband down to see Santa. … (He was sick and) when we left, he felt so good … She says, he’s passed away since (and) I just thought this year I’d bring you some candy canes.
“That’s the kind of stuff that makes you want to go out there. It is. …
“I just thought that was so nice of her to show up. But it makes you feel good that (Santa) must have touched her enough that she wanted to reciprocate; she wanted to do something back.
“You know what? It’s not that she wanted to do something for me — but that she wanted to do something for somebody.
“And if everybody that came out here did that, what a terrific world this would be.”
Know someone living “from the heart?” Idaho Statesman photojournalist Katherine Jones spotlights someone in the Treasure Valley who influences our lives not only by what they do, but how and why they do it. Do you know someone we should know? Call 377-6414 or email email@example.com. Katherine Jones: 208-377-6414, firstname.lastname@example.org, @IDS_Photography
Santa answers the tough questions
Where do you get reindeer that fly?
“(In California), there’s a ranch down there where they raise reindeer and occasionally, not very often, once in a while, they’ll get one that can fly. When they do, they call me and I go and get it.”
Why are you here (in Richard Cirelli’s yard)?
“I know a lot of people, I’m in the car community and I know people; I’ll tell (kids), because Richard’s working on my sleigh in the garage out back and I’m waiting for him to get done. Then I’ll go to the North Pole.”
Why are there so many Santas?
“There’s more than what one Santa can do to gather up the list from all the children. He has to have help. He has to have other Santas to help.”
How do you go to all the houses?
“I tell them it’s magic, that’s all. It’s just magic.”
IF YOU GO
Santa will receive visitors 6:30-8:30 p.m. daily through Dec. 22. Lights are on at Richard Cirelli’s house, 1201 Syringa Place in Nampa, until New Year’s Day. Everything is free, but if you bring donations of food, it will go to a local family chosen by school counselors.