Who are America’s ‘real’ Santa Clauses?

The Times looked through records to try to find all the people legally named Santa Claus in the past two centuries.
Santa Claus, formerly known as Frank Pascuzzi, poses for a photo in November 2020. He lives on Long Island, New York.
Santa Claus, formerly known as Frank Pascuzzi, poses for a photo in November 2020. He lives on Long Island, New York. [ Courtesy of Santa Claus ]
Published Dec. 21, 2021|Updated Dec. 22, 2021

America’s first Santa Claus may have been a man accused in a federal indictment of introducing two gallons of untaxed whiskey to Arkansas “Indian Country.”

A yellowed writ, signed by the clerk of the U.S. criminal court for the Western District of Arkansas two weeks before Christmas 1882, commands that U.S. Marshals, “in the name of the President of the United States of America, apprehend the said Santa Claus and bring his body forthwith before me.”

It is the earliest document to turn up with the legal name “Santa Claus” in a recent Tampa Bay Times search of national archives and other public records.

The name Santa Claus evolved at the turn of the nineteenth century from “Sinter Klaas,” a Dutch nickname for Saint Nicholas, the popular patron of sailors, children and pawnbrokers. Legend has it that he rescued young maidens from prostitution by paying their dowries in gold coins.

While surely thousands of humans have since portrayed the magical reindeer tamer, only a handful of Americans appear to have been named Santa Claus legally.

A writ from 1882 ordering the arrest of Santa Claus in Arkansas.
A writ from 1882 ordering the arrest of Santa Claus in Arkansas. [ National Archives ]

It’s not clear what happened to that Santa Claus from 1882. The entire description provided in the records is that he was a Black man living at Eureka Springs in Arkansas. In 1889, a Santa Claus was cited for “rebellious conduct” at the state penitentiary in Huntsville, Texas, according to a 130-year-old ledger listing convicts there.

An 1898 special census of Native Americans lists a 1-year-old member of a Zuni Pueblo family simply as “English Name: Santa Claus,” with a blank space under “Indian Name.”

Santa Claus doesn’t seem to appear again until the 1940 U.S. Census. A Santa Claus born in 1888 lived in Marshall, Missouri, in a rented home with his wife Minnie Mabel Claus, their five sons, two daughters and Santa’s brother, Earl Claus. That Santa finished the fourth grade and was working as a “sewer man” making $268 a year.

Census records are only public after 72 years, so that trail goes cold after 1940. More general Census data from 2010 shows Claus as the 8,911th most common surname in the U.S., just after Heinen and tied with Lerch and Kubiak. With 3,674 Clauses in the U.S., we can safely deduce there are fewer than that many Santa Clauses.

The question was posed in a Facebook group for off-duty retail Santas: Do any of you Santas know Santas who’ve legally changed their name to Santa?

Somewhat surprisingly, several of the Santas there deemed people who do this as “weird.” However, one took pity and suggested a call to “Frank up in Deer Park.”

This turned out to be the former Frank Pascuzzi, 63, of New York’s Long Island. Legal name since 2012: Santa Claus.

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The change was partly practical, said the former Pascuzzi, who outside the Christmas season makes his living catering barbecue and designing and installing fire sprinklers.

Kids are smart. It’s hard to get them to believe when you pull up in a red van. Now he can show them his driver’s license.

Digging deeper, though, he admitted the change was personal. Santa Claus’s forearms are covered in tattoos. He used to weigh 420 pounds. He always held himself to a high standard of kindness, but commuters on the Long Island Rail Road, he said, were afraid to sit next to him years ago. Now people see him as he always saw himself.

“There’s a lot of evil garbage that goes on in everyday life,” he said. “I wanted to be better than that. By changing my hair color and name, I’m in the public eye as Santa. It’s almost impossible not to be the better person I want to be.”

The judge who approved his name change in 2012 stepped down from the bench and gave him a hug.

He says a clerk at the Social Security office told him he was the 15th Santa Claus with a Social Security card. A spokesperson for the Social Security Administration said confirmation would require a Freedom of Information Act request. The request did not yield a response by press time.

Legally becoming Santa Claus is not always a protective salve against the less jolly parts of being human.

“Mr. Claus advised he is at the point that he is not sure how to go on day by day,” a Bay County deputy wrote in a report after visiting the red and white home of Santa N. Claus for a welfare check in 2018.

Court records show at least five people legally named Santa Claus in Arizona, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Colorado, and northern Florida have petitioned to file bankruptcy in federal court since 1995. Another faced eviction in Sarasota County.

Other public records were a dead end. “Santa Claus” is listed in documents from at least six federal criminal cases since 1988, but all appear to be defendants “also known as” Santa Claus. That includes a white-bearded Philadelphia mobster who in 1992 gave the feds the gift of informing on his old boss, and a Gainesville, Fla., drug trafficker from the 1980s.

A search via a company the Tampa Bay Times uses to find contact information for sources turned up 26 supposed Santa Clauses in Florida alone (one with the listed associate “Bell, Tinker”), but many appeared to be pranksters who’d signed “Santa Claus” to a petition or perhaps opened a social media account under the name.

Florida voter registration records listed a Christopher Cringle in Palm Beach County and a Christopher Kringle James Biggins living in Clearwater. (”My father thought it would help me win bar bets when I grew up,” the Clearwater man said by phone.)

The International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas pointed to the former David Linporter, legally living as Santa Claus with his wife Alise Claus outside Salt Lake City, Utah. The couple have portrayed Santa and Mrs. Claus for more than three decades, but the name change came in 2000. Mr. Claus, 63, was a bus driver before retiring. He wanted his uniform to read “Santa Claus.” It was the only way the city would allow it.

The obituaries site contains notices on three late Santa Clauses: a World War II Navy veteran from Kissimmee who traveled the world as a spokesman for candy canes; an Easton, Pa., trucker who was an accomplished trap shooter; a Vietnam vet from Yuma, Ariz., who loved “delivering toys” and “slots.”

Few are likely as dedicated as the Santa Claus formerly known as Thomas O’Connor. His path led him to reside in North Pole, Alaska, where he’s nearing the end of his second term as a city councilman (top issue: “water supply stuff”).

City council member Santa Claus, right, during a city council meeting in North Pole, Alaska.
City council member Santa Claus, right, during a city council meeting in North Pole, Alaska. [ Courtesy of Santa Claus ]

The Anchorage Daily News described the 74-year-old as, “a medical-marijuana-using, Bernie-supporting vegetarian (Christian) monk” who took a vow of poverty, prefers his crimson monk’s robe over a Santa suit and finds Christmas a “crass commercial secular spectacle.” He said that’s accurate.

Claus worked his way through grad school as a bouncer at a New York City bar in the 1970s, dabbled in acting (he has one absolutely filthy line in the Al Pacino classic Dog Day Afternoon) and worked for years in law enforcement, where he says he saw the worst of what happens to children in the foster system.

Years later while living in Lake Tahoe, Nev., he began to naturally resemble Santa Claus and decided to leverage that to advocate for child health and welfare reform. One day while walking and praying on what to do next, someone yelled from a passing car, “I love you Santa!” He immediately decided to change his name. Politicians, he said, tend to listen when they’re contacted by the real Santa Claus.

He wasn’t sure how many others have taken the name legally, but he believes that most Santas share a kindred spirit of compassion and kindness for children. He believes parents don’t ever need to tell their kids Santa isn’t real.

“That is actually a lie,” he said, “because there are in fact many of us.” He believes this real-life conception of Santa is even more impactful. It lets kids know that there are people, some they don’t even know, who care about them. “And that is essential.”

Property records in Pinellas County did turn up one legit Cris Cringle in Tampa Bay. An amused Shane Datzman answered the number listed for Cringle, explaining he’d purchased a prepaid phone with the number.

“Whenever I call people the caller ID says Cris Cringle,” he said. “It’s contagious. I’m cheery.”

Reached by phone, the real Cris Cringle’s sister described her oldest brother as a longtime Arizona resident who relished his decades of charity work for children, kept his pockets stuffed with candy canes year-round and delighted strangers everywhere with his Santa-esque kindness.

Cris R. Cringle, left, formerly known as Robert Thorbin, seen with an unidentified friend.
Cris R. Cringle, left, formerly known as Robert Thorbin, seen with an unidentified friend.

The children in his own family called him “Uncle Santa,” said his sister, Denice Cerabino.

He worked as a travel agent and later owned a courier service in Phoenix called Cringle Express. He played in a darts league. He never had kids of his own, but in middle age found love with a widower who’d already had a family.

After Cringle’s husband died in 2018, his family in St. Petersburg began trying to lure him to Tampa Bay. He was ill when he finally arrived in the fall of 2020 and moved in two doors down from his brother in a St. Petersburg mobile home park.

He was 82, but that year he decided to don the suit for the first time in years for a community Christmas party to the delight of his new Florida neighbors.

He died on Dec. 26.

His family believes maybe he’d held on until Christmas passed, Cerabino said, “because he had a job to do. ... And he did it.”

This week his brother Charles Thorbin will don his brother’s Santa suit at the community party.