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Meet the jolly man behind the designer beard

Show time is in one hour and 20 minutes, and Jim Manning is meticulously rehearsing his lines in the cramped quarters of his trailer. All the blinds are drawn, preventing wandering eyes from peeking in.

His attire for the evening hangs in the back of the trailer in a room so confined, only a chunky black pair of boots, a designer beard crafted from yak hair and a red velvet suit can fit inside comfortably.

Manning had returned, jollier than a kid on Christmas morning, for his 12th performance at the Boston Common Tree Lighting as the city’s official Santa Claus.

Boston’s official Santa Claus Jim Manning paints his eyebrows white to prepare for his 12th annual performance at the 2023 Boston Common Tree Lighting. MARGARET CORONA/DFP PHOTOGRAPHER

Not a minute passed that evening without an expression of gratitude, a burst of laughter or a dry-humored joke. These are, undoubtedly, only a handful of the prominent characteristics Manning brings to his role of Santa.

“I take being Santa Claus very seriously without taking myself too seriously,” Manning said, chuckling as he awkwardly settled into a chair attempting not to tear the suit’s delicate stitching.

Manning is the epitome of North Pole vitality at the uncharacteristic age of 47 — 19 years younger than the average Father Christmas, according to the 2023 Red Suit Survey. Prior to becoming a professional Santa Claus 19 years ago, Manning held 53 jobs, including a Charleston-based AmeriCorps volunteer, an English teacher to children in South Korea and a dexterous balloon artist.

Manning was born and raised in New Rochelle, New York, in an Irish-Catholic family. The license plate of his sleigh — a white Honda SUV teeming with a conglomerate of back-up costume parts, charging cords and mints — reads “Happiness is being Irish.”

“I have such an Irish dry sense of humor that, on a given basis, people around me don’t know whether I’m joking or not,” Manning said. “I convinced a server a couple of months ago that I was allergic to water.”

When he’s not granting Christmas wishes, delivering presents and avoiding overheating in his suit — he wears a vest of ice packs underneath to keep him cool — Manning works as a magician, motivational speaker and soon-to-be author.

This year, Manning will have climbed down 67 chimneys between Nov. 24 and Dec. 24, totaling 81 hours of work. And on the 25th, he and his wife Sonya will depart for a tropical vacation to recharge from a long month’s work.

“It’s just become part of our lives and part of the tradition,” said Sonya of Manning’s role as Santa. “He’s the person that everyone wants to talk to. It doesn’t matter if you’re a 5-year-old or if you’re a 75-year-old.”

Though Sonya — who is a professional hair stylist and owner of Cambridge’s Revela Salon — often helps “Santa Jim” style his hair and do his makeup, she’s hesitant to don the Mrs. Claus costume.

“Maybe one of these years when we’re old and gray,” she joked. “If he’s still doing it, maybe I’ll do it.”

In 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Manning mothballed his sleigh and connected with clients via Zoom. He spent almost 12 hours a day at his desk, greeting children from his virtual workshop.

One day, after Manning developed a serious leg cramp from continuous sitting, Sonya noticed a large bump on his leg and encouraged him to visit a doctor.

Boston’s signature Santa Claus Jim Manning at a pet Meet-and-Greet with Santa at the Colonnade in Boston. MARGARET CORONA/DFP PHOTOGRAPHER

In 2021, Manning was diagnosed with a sarcoma. Three months later, Sonya was diagnosed with breast cancer. They caught their diagnoses early, and the two went through treatment and recovery together between 2021 and 2022.

“It’s okay to take a silver lining out of a cloud,” Manning said.

Last month, Santa Jim and Sonya received their two-and-a-half-year and two-year remission clearance scans, respectively.

With clear skies for flying his sleigh and his health better than ever, Manning is full speed ahead this winter. Visits he’s made so far this year include a Christmas sing-along with award-winning singer and actress Jennifer Hudson, a pet meet-and-greet at the Colonnade Hotel and a trip to surprise local firefighters’ children.

“I’m only with them for a short amount of time, but when I interact with people, they’re left better for it,” Manning said. “That makes me feel like I’m doing the right thing, and that makes me grateful to have this job.”

Santa Jim has visited families and children well over a thousand times — both in-person and from the North Pole via Zoom — and has built a profound, loyal clientele.

Lisa Noe, a clinical social worker and a client of Manning’s for nearly a decade, described his work as invaluable to her family’s Christmas Eve gatherings.

Manning reached out several weeks before his appearances to learn the names of all the children and ask if there was anything personalized he should include during his visit, Noe said.

“And he memorized it. He memorized, every year, everything that we gave him to say about each child and he was always dead on,” she said.

Though she has no more “believers” in the household, Christmas “would not have been the same without him,” Noe said.

In addition to making each child feel like they’re number one on the “Nice List,” Manning said he values “allowing the children to be their pure selves in front of their parents and in front of their loved ones.”

Sitting in a position as to not rip his pants, Manning hydrates in his trailer before being called to stage for the tree lighting ceremony. MARGARET CORONA/DFP PHOTOGRAPHER

When Manning read “‘Twas The Night Before Christmas” to firefighters’ children during his visit, dozens raised their hands to voice their most pressing Santa-related inquiries, including “How does Santa travel all over the world in one night?”

Manning paused each time to acknowledge every question and carefully respond.

He said he uses the “space-time continuum” to “bend space” and make Christmas wishes come true. The room filled with oohs and ahhs from awe-stricken children and discreet laughter from parents at the “Back to the Future” reference.

“You asked a lot of great questions,” Manning told one boy, who asked nearly 10. “And I want you to remember how important it is that you keep always asking questions, because that’s how you learn.”

But perhaps the most important of all his Santa qualities is Manning’s commitment to spreading love and empathizing with others, regardless of their religious identity.

“Santa is Santa Claus for everybody. He doesn’t offer judgment,” Manning said. “He is the bringer of peace and joy and love, and I like embodying that.”

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One Comment

  1. I am so honored to have seen “Santa” many times in Boston and many other places! He is a truly amazing person!