Santa Claus isn’t comin’ to town. He’s already here.
The man known for his love of the Christmas spirit calls Copiague home and in recent years has become a kind of local celebrity. Search the Internet and you’ll find dozens of stories — from “Inside Edition” and CNN to local outlets — on Claus and his charitable work with children’s hospitals and the New York Yankees, to name a few.
Perhaps the most unusual aspects of his life is that Santa Claus isn’t an act — it’s his everyday life, with a driver’s license and credit cards to match. He legally changed his name to Santa Claus in 2012, which Newsday confirmed with court and voter registration records.
“It was a natural progression,” he said. “I had a job at a retail store in Manhattan, so everyone already knew me as Santa Claus.”
The story of how he earned his name depends on who is asking. The “boring” version is that after 20 years of playing Santa, he wanted to take it a step further. The version he tells kids is more along the lines of the 1994 Tim Allen movie “The Santa Clause” — he was designated as the next Santa and part of his obligation was to legally change his name.
The driver’s license usually impresses the older kids, but he seeks to inspire joy in all children. He said his four now-adult children loved the Santa persona when they were young and his daughter really thought her dad was Santa.
“There was a point in her life where she asked me, ‘When are you going to get the reindeer?’ ” he said. “She completely believed I was Santa Claus.”
Claus’ workshops are his garage and kitchen, and his sleigh is actually more of a meat smoker. Much like the mythology, Claus has an almost magical skill for multitasking — he designs fire sprinkler systems, travels around the state and country as St. Nick and, on the weekends, serves up pulled pork, deep-fried ravioli and slow-smoked ribs through his barbecue catering company, Santa’s BBQ.
When he’s not spending his time cooking, Claus is visiting children’s hospitals and corporate parties. He chronicles his December plans on his Facebook page for more than 8,500 followers.
Some private visits are paid, and others are free, but he says he donates much of the proceeds to nonprofits for causes he cares about, including the Babylon Breast Cancer Coalition.
One of Claus’ regular visits is to the Stephen D. Hassenfel Children’s Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at NYU Langone Medical Center in Manhattan. Operations manager Mara Gold said his visits predate most of the current staff and he’s one of the most beloved visitors to the center’s patients.
“He comes and he looks like the real Santa Claus,” Gold said. “The little ones are very perplexed, like they can’t figure out if it’s the real deal. The older ones love it, the parents love it and the families love it.”
Claus refuses to accept payment for his visits, and between two parties this year, Gold said he handed out 150 gifts.
Christmas Eve, naturally, is a special day for Claus. He travels to the homes of Long Island children and reads them Christmas stories. He gives them each presents and tells them to be good.
He said he makes sure to carry a second form of ID, as many people don’t believe him when he first presents his credit card.
“I’ve had to go on business trips and I give them my credit card, and they say, ‘Can we have your real name?’ ” he said. “A lot of times, I have to call somebody and I start off on the voice mail, ‘This is not a joke, my legal name is Santa Claus.’ ”
Mary Ellen Schnepf, 61, of West Islip, had a similar reaction, she said. She met Claus at a Lindenhurst tree lighting after superstorm Sandy. She had come to the event dressed as Mrs. Claus and almost didn’t believe him when he revealed his outfit wasn’t just a costume.
“At first I had to see the license. I was a little bit of a doubter until I saw that,” she said. But “as you get to know him, there’s no doubt that he’s the real deal.”
His family is supportive, Claus said, though his wife and four children don’t seem to love the spotlight as much as he does. That’s why Schnepf plays Mrs. Claus. The pair recently attended some Toys for Tots events and the Yankees’ winter wonderland.
“Most children just flock to him,” Schnepf said. “I consider it one of the biggest blessings in my life that I get to see through his eyes the magic and the joy.”