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'Santa Jim' Paviglianiti of Centereach embodies the true spirit of St. Nick

Emily Tell, 8, of Elmont, pulls Santa's beard.

Emily Tell, 8, of Elmont, pulls Santa's beard. Santa is played by Jim Paviglianiti of Centereach at Henry Schein's 16th Annual Holiday Cheer for Children party in Melville, Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2014. Credit: Randee Daddona

On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, Santa Claus makes one of his first seasonal appearances at a Selden bagel store. This is one of those classic Long Island moments: Where else would the most popular character of the holiday season be greeting people as they order their lox, cream cheese and bialys?

But here at Cella Bagels on Middle Country Road, Santa is, indeed, in the house. Don't tell the little ones, but in real life, this Santa is 58-year-old Jim Paviglianiti of Centereach.

Even for those who no longer believe in Old Saint Nick, Paviglianiti looks like the real thing. No fake beard, nor belly, nor red polyester suit. This Santa has been transported from a Victorian tale wearing a resplendent coat trimmed in white fur; a jaunty green hat with jolly sprigs of holly; and genuine snowy whiskers that dare to be pulled.

And there's no hackneyed "Ho-ho-ho." Santa Jim, as he is known, works the crowd like a skilled politician, gallantly holding open the door for two young women who arrive for breakfast.

"Good morning, ladies!" he booms.

"Hi, Santa!" they respond, giggling.

As two large men in sweatsuits stop in from nearby Planet Fitness, Paviglianiti asks, "Hey guys, good workout?"

"Yo, Santa," says one of them. "Good to see you!"


'A very special Santa'

We all know about seasonal Santas who, in ubiquitous red costumes, help spread joy when the holiday merriment begins. But Santa Jim has a fan base. "He's a very special Santa," says bagel store owner John Rose. This is the third year Rose has hired Santa Jim to visit his store. "He's always a big hit," Rose says. "Even the grumpy people who come in here before they've had their morning coffee see him and smile."

Paviglianiti is one of about a half dozen professional Santas who live on Long Island. They're among the 2,200 pros in the database of "Santa Tim" Connaghan. As chairman of the (yes) Kringle Group LLC, Connaghan, 67, has a residence in Smithtown but spends most of his time on the West Coast. (He is the official Santa for the celebrity-studded Hollywood Christmas Parade.)

Part of Connaghan's work involves placing his Santas -- for holiday fairs, corporate events and private parties -- all over the country. According to a 2014 survey of Connaghan's Santas, their average age is 67; most are retired, except during the holiday season. Shopping mall Santas are hired by photographic agencies, and according to Connaghan, the ones at Long Island malls are usually from out of state. He estimates that, in all, there are about 4,000 professional Santas in the United States.

Paviglianiti, a driver for a medical supply company in Holtsville, is still a few years away from retirement, but he is, in Connaghan's view, a first-rate example of the Santa set. "I think Jim is a very good role model to other Santas," says Connaghan. "I tell people it's not the beard, it's not the suit . . . you have to have it in your heart. Jim has it in his heart."


Suited to the apparel

The Centereach Santa says he never knew he had real Santa-bility until he donned his first St. Nick outfit -- a rather low-rent one that would have kids of a certain sophistication level checking him twice. That was 20 years ago, when Paviglianiti was working for United Cerebral Palsy. There was a last-minute need for a Santa at the Festival of Trees, a major annual fundraiser for the organization, and he reluctantly relented to the desperate coercing of his fellow employees, who sensed that the outgoing, wisecracking Paviglianiti would make a good Kris Kringle.

"I put on a Santa suit that was much too large for my frame, threw in a pillow, put on a fake beard and was Santa for a day," he recalls.

Despite the ill-fitting outfit, he was a success, and was soon getting requests from other organizations. He decided that if he was going to portray Santa, he had to do it right. He didn't want to be what he calls a "Coca-Cola Santa," referring to the now familiar image of the red-and-white-clad, cherry-nosed gent that first appeared in Coca-Cola ads in the mid-20th century. Instead, Paviglianiti did research and sought earlier, more rustic, versions of the character. "I made a long coat with a lamb's wool and gold trim," he says. "A forest green Santa hat, plaid pants, boots, belt, bells and suspenders."

Thus, Santa Jim was created. Although he still wears a 32 waist in street clothes (albeit, he concedes, with a bit of a belly overhang), he has "grown" into the role of Santa. Paviglianiti has made a veritable science out of his beard. "I start growing it on July 1," he says, so it will reach proper Santa-esque length and consistency by Thanksgiving.

It's not just a question of letting it grow like a Christmas weed: Santa clones, who are serious about looking authentic, consider gauche the beard lengths, for example, sported by members of the rock band ZZ Top. "A real Santa's beard should go down to about here," says Paviglianiti, holding a hand up to the end of his fluffy whiskers, 2-3 inches below the chin.

He ritually shaves off the beard after his last Christmas Day gig. From then on, he's back to his medical supply job and being clean-shaven Jimmy Pav, guitarist for KickIN' It, a local classic rock band, and grandfather of six.


Santa's helpers

Most of the 30 appearances he makes each season as Santa are on Long Island, but he has also appeared as Klaus at Radio City Music Hall and at the old FAO Schwarz toy emporium in Manhattan. And for a time, Santa became the family business during the holidays: His twin brother, Joseph, of Port St. Lucie, Florida, frequently joined him as Santa; Paviglianiti's now-grown daughters Kim and Jennifer often appeared as Santa's elves. His wife, Cathy, still joins him at events as Mrs. Claus.

About 40 percent of his Santa gigs are performed gratis for charity, such as the recent Henry Schein Corp. Holiday Cheer party for underprivileged children. But paid or not, like the presents he delivers, it's what inside that counts. "When he's dressed as Santa, his personality changes," says Cathy. "He just loves doing this."


Making his rounds

At the Cella bagel store, 3-year-old Sophia Hashish of Medford, spots Paviglianiti. "Santa!" she shrieks, and makes a beeline for him. He scoops her up and gives her a big hug. "She's so beautiful," he says to Sophia's parents, Sammy and Nancy. He then poses for a photo with Sophia, whose smile is incandescent.

"I'm glad we stopped by," says Sammy. "Who knew we'd run into Santa here?"

But not everybody is happy during the holiday, and it's here where experienced, professional Santas earn their pay (generally between $100 and $500 per appearance).

As he continues to work the crowd at the bagel store, Paviglianiti approaches one middle-aged woman standing on line.

"Good morning!" he says. "How are you?"

"Not so good, Santa," she responds.

"What's the matter?"

"I'm having surgery next week," she confides. Santa Jim takes her aside and speaks quietly to her. When she leaves, he returns grim-faced. "She told me she has brain cancer," he says. "They're operating next week. I told her I'd pray for her."

Cathy says that such encounters -- which happen periodically -- are a testament to both the power of the Santa image and the quality of her husband's interpretation of that character. "She just told a complete stranger that she had cancer," says Cathy. "And yet, it wasn't really a complete stranger. People feel they know Santa . . . and Jimmy understands that."

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