Berlin's Ric Feehley becomes Santa Claus each holiday season — and receives the best gift of all
Story by Brian Shane | Photos by Grant L. Gursky
Ric Feehley might be the coolest Santa you’ll ever meet. On a bright Wednesday outside the Berlin public library, he arrives in a scarlet SUV — a modern-day sleigh, if there ever were one. He dons a bright-red fedora and chunky black sunglasses, a perfect complement to his bushy, white beard.
Ric first donned the world’s most famous red suit in 1995, when he made his home in central Maryland. A local nursery, Arnold Farms, ran an advertisement for a seasonal Santa, to dovetail with their burgeoning venture into Christmas-tree sales.
“I answered the ad and said, ‘I’m your Santa, and this is my rate; for an additional amount, you can get Mrs. Claus along with it,’ Ric recalled. “The people loved it, because the only other Santa in the area had more than an hour wait to get in line and see him. The best part was, Mom and Dad could trust leaving their kids with Santa while they did their shopping.”
Ric and his wife, Doris, eventually moved to Berlin, and they branched out with more Santa and Mrs. Claus appearances: at the fire hall here for spaghetti supper, a few church breakfasts, some private parties. Doris, who endured years of mounting health complications, passed away in 2015. They were married 26 years.
Now, at age 68, Ric has elevated his Santa game, going from local appearances on Maryland’s Eastern Shore to landing coveted mall gigs across the nation. “This year, they’re sending me to Lake Champlain, Illinois, and of course they take care of airfare, car rental, hotel, everything,” Ric said. “I’ll be at the mall seven days a week, from mid-November all the way to Christmas. It’s a great company to work for.”
That company is Cherry Hill Programs — the New Jersey-based outfit that lays claim to the largest Santa Claus placement organization in America. Cherry Hill Programs staffs more than 900 venues across North America during the holiday season and has more than 1,000 seasonal Kris Kringles under management. Santa Ric meets about 500 kids a day — and even more as he gets closer to Christmas Eve.
There’s more to playing Santa than just wearing the iconic suit and growing a beard (Cherry Hill Programs requires its Santas to sport authentic white whiskers). He has to research what toys are popular, so he can anticipate a child’s holiday wishes whispered in his ear. Ric mentions that he discourages requests for guns or gun-like toys, stressing that a gun isn’t a toy.
“If you’re looking to go hunting with your father,” he’ll tell the child, “then you sit and discuss that with your father. That’s the most negative it gets.” Portraying Santa Claus isn’t just about being a toy giver, Ric says, cognizant that he’s a mythical role model to the thousands of young children he meets.
To that end, he’s carefully crafted his image and dresses in a debonair Santa suit he says would look at home on a Coca-Cola billboard. “I have brass buttons all the way down; I have a matching vest underneath,” Ric said. “It’s something I worked long and hard at, as far as trying to create that image of me, so it’s going to make me unique from everybody else out there. Hopefully, people like what they see.”
One special Santa memory in a career that’s generated thousands comes to mind when asked to share his favorite: Ric sentimentally recalled a father who brought his daughter with severe cerebral palsy to see Santa every year at the convention center in Ocean City.
“Every time she saw me,” Ric remembered, “she just lit up like a Christmas tree. Her father would lift her from her wheelchair and place her in my lap, and I would let her sit there as long as she wanted. She was as happy as she could be, and for me, that’s what it’s all about.”