Larson visits the Providence Child Center and its young patients earlier this year. A few, like young Oneidia Orozco-Caravantes, didn’t want to sit on his lap. That’s a reasonable choice that should be respected, says Larson. (Kristen Hannum/Catholic Sentinel)
Larson visits the Providence Child Center and its young patients earlier this year. A few, like young Oneidia Orozco-Caravantes, didn’t want to sit on his lap. That’s a reasonable choice that should be respected, says Larson. (Kristen Hannum/Catholic Sentinel)
Here’s one truth about Santa Claus, according to Mark Larson.

“Santa wants everyone on the nice list,” he says. “That’s his whole goal.”

Larson should know. A graduate of The International School of Santa Claus and a member of the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas, he was identified as a Santa long before he ever considered the position.

It happened one summer day after he’d ridden his motorcycle to McDonald’s for a burger. He popped his helmet off, got his meal and sat down with his wife to eat, only to hear a child call out, “Daddy, there’s Santa!”

Larson looked around, hoping for a glimpse of the jolly old elf.

It was off-season for Santa, and Larson hadn’t seen him in any of the booths.

Then the little boy was at Larson’s side, asking him to autograph his “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” picture book, which included images of a young, red-headed, red-bearded Santa … who looked a lot like Larson.

“I signed the book,” admits Larson. “I wrote, ‘Keep being good — S.C.’”

Afterward, his wife predicted what would indeed come to pass: “When you retire,” she said, “you’re going to be a mall Santa.”

Believing in Santa

Larson has learned a lot about Santa since that day. “Of course I believe in Santa,” he says. “St. Nicholas and a couple other saints were gift-givers. And as a Catholic, if I can be a little more like them I’ll be a little more like Christ. Isn’t that what all Catholics aim for?”

Larson, a parishioner St. Cecilia in Beaverton, loves the “ho-ho-ho-ing,” mostly because he enjoys the kids. He emphatically counters parents who push their kids to sit on his lap even if the tykes don’t want to. “Let them stand beside me, or sit on the chair next to me,” he says, adding that it’s perfectly reasonable for children to be frightened of this outlandishly dressed big guy.

“I’m 6 foot 2 and 275 pounds,” Larson, or rather Santa Mark, says. “There’s nothing small about me.”

It’s actually more often parents, not children, who risk falling off Santa Mark’s “nice list.”

Parents have been known to scare kids about Santa — how Santa won’t bring them any presents, for instance, because they’re on his naughty list.

Parents can be roguish even in Santa’s presence. Larson heard one dad up to mischief in the Santa line with his young son at a mall. The father was encouraging his son to yank Santa’s beard. The youngster didn’t want to.

Santa Mark, once with the boy, reassured him and then incited some mischief of his own. Before talking about Christmas, Santa Mark said they were going to give Dad “the stink eye.” That photo, with Santa Mark sternly looking over his glasses and the boy mimicking his steely gaze, was the one the boy’s family chose to buy.

Larson, a past grand knight of the Knights of Columbus, has also found himself defending Santa theologically. “I’ve been attacked on the grounds that Santa isn’t Catholic or Christian, that he’s all secular,” Larson says.

While granting that the American Santa Claus can be a materialistic fellow, Larson chooses to emphasize Santa’s saintly background and to use his secular appeal in order to teach Catholic values. “The Christmas season is a secular Advent,” he says. “The purpose is teaching that people can be good.”

Larson, understandably, has given this quite a bit of thought. He even has an explanation for the legend of St. Nicholas giving bad kids a piece of coal in their stocking. St. Nicholas of Myra — the fourth-century bishop who was a prototype of Santa — and his monks were famous for their generosity. The gift of coal, which could keep a family warm or fuel a stove for cooking dinner, wouldn’t be such a bad gift, says Larson.

“I really believe Mark sees being Santa as a ministry,” says David Renshaw, director of communications for the Archdiocese of Portland. “And bringing hope and joy to others in this day and age is a ministry.”

Not part-time work

In his role as grand knight of the St. Cecilia council, Larson recruited Renshaw to be a knight.

The Larson and Renshaw families became good friends, and yet the younger Renshaw children never guessed why Santa looked so familiar.

Larson is both passionate about what he does and is also an even-keeled guy, says Renshaw. “He’s someone who lets stuff roll off his back — as Santa has to, what with crying kids and everything. He brings good cheer.”

Larson had a long career as a TriMet bus driver, with many riders telling him he looked like Santa.

Renshaw admits it’s odd to see Larson dressed as a knight: “Because he still has that big white beard. All year he’s still Santa, wherever he goes.”

While Santa Mark is busiest during the Christmas season (and his grandsons can tell you that comes to a head on Christmas Eve), Larson agrees it’s a 365 day a year job, 24/7.

“I guess you can never be a part-time Santa,” quips Renshaw.

One evening last summer at Seaside Santa Mark and Mrs. Claus were sharing a late dinner at the Pig and Pancake. Both wore normal, casual, civilian attire.

There was a tugging on his shirt. He looked down to see a little girl.

“Hi Santa,” she said.

“Where are your mom and dad?” Santa Mark asked, looking around for them.

A table of adults waved.

“What are you doing?” the girl asked.

“Naughty and nice checks,” he replied. “You know, Santa’s not always at the North Pole. How’s your mommy doing?”

“Naughty,” she said.

“Daddy?”

“Naughty.”

“Gramma?”

“Naughty.”

“That’s concerning,” said Santa Mark. “Why are they naughty?”

“They yelled at me today.”

“Wait a minute, Santa,” Mrs. Claus broke in. “I’ve got some questions.”

Mrs. Claus (Santa Mark usually calls her “Linda”) asked the girl if she made her bed today.

The little girl frowned.

Picked up her toys? Hugged her dolly?

Yes, the little girl finally vigorously agreed. She had hugged her doll.

Mrs. Claus then gave her a job, although the girl at first protested that at 5 she was too young to work.

“Your job is to help your mommy, daddy and gramma to get back on Santa’s nice list,” Mrs. Claus said. “To do that, you can do what they ask — the first time — and be sure to give them lots of hugs.”

The little girl considered, then nodded and ran back to her family, giving everyone at that table a good hug.

“We have fun with it,” says Larson. “It’s mostly giving them attention. And it’s about seeing so deep into someone’s heart that you can see Santa.”