- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 21, 2002

First come the red coveralls and boots. Then the hair salon for hot rollers: The long, white beard has to be fluffed. But forget the sled; Santa needs a red car to reach the mall and the lines of hopeful children waiting on him.

Meet Joe Monaco carpenter, plumber and professional Santa extraordinaire. Call him Santa or Joe, short for "Jolly Old Elf," but never Mr. Monaco. Because for this elf, Santa isn't a part-time pseudonym. It is who he is.

"I look forward to this time of year," said Mr. Monaco, 49, who lives in Colorado Springs. "But I do this every day of the year. In airports, stores, on the street, I am recognized as Santa."

Every day of the year, he wears the blue or red coveralls he has dyed. Daily, he selects a flannel shirt with snowmen or other designs to match. Every day he bends down to speak softly to children, patiently listening to their dreams, problems or wishes.

Most days, he has a pocket full of candy, trinkets and other small gifts for the children big and small.

Mr. Monaco began donning elf accouterments in 1990 at a company picnic because he already had a long white beard. When children commented that he looked too young to be Santa, he told them he was Santa's son and was in training.

Soon it became his life.

"There is nothing better than seeing children's eyes light up," he said. "I love the hugs. And you would be amazed at how much people share with you: 'Daddy is gone; my parents aren't getting along; mom lost her job.' There isn't much you can do, but you can comfort them. Often children just need to talk."

For the past two years, Mr. Monaco has worked in the Manassas Mall through an organization called Naturally Santa Inc. of Colorado, which provides Santas to shopping malls, parties and others wishing a "real" Santa, with a real beard and Santa-like demeanor.

Naturally Santa was started by Alma "Mama" Gooch because she was tired of the "plop-plop, fizz-fizz" Santas in shopping malls who rushed children through their sessions, refused pictures for free or smelled of smoke and alcohol, she said.

Mr. Monaco is not that kind of Santa.

He gently cajoles two shy girls to his lap. Their mother, convinced they won't do it, breaks into tears. He tenderly works with a little boy who has had two heart surgeries. This year the boy can finally speak. He poses for pictures with a couple and their children. "This is my husband's last Christmas," the wife tells him. Cancer, Santa explains knowingly, for his wife died of the disease.

"It is very exhausting, physically and mentally," he said of his work that has him busy 12 hours every day. "But I enjoy it. And it lets me spread a little magic in the world. What better gift is there?"

People believe.

"He's Santa Claus," hair stylist Janet Plezniak is convinced. "I wasn't much of a Christmas person and didn't believe in Santa until I met him. But the first time I met him, I saw that magical dust and twinkling music you see and hear on television. I took his cape off and gasped."

"I don't know why but I know it in my heart; he's Santa," she added. "He has that effect on everyone."

That was last year. Since then, Mr. Monaco has spent Thanksgiving with Mrs. Plezniak and her family.

And Christmas Eve, too, she says. After dinner, he has a lot to do.

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