The ‘real’ Santa is in La Jolla

By Dave Schwab

Staff Writer

Everyone has an “inner” Santa.

James D. McDonald just wears his on the outside.

The Jewel’s Santa Claus, McDonald, who is also La Jolla’s estate liquidator, has been a fixture as old St. Nick at the annual La Jolla Town Council Parade for 25 years, 10 years at La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club’s Yuletide event.

It’s a role he treasures — and intends to continue playing just as long as he is able.

“I love kids and it’s very rewarding to me — I just feel so good doing it,” said McDonald, who recalls his wife was pregnant with his daughter when he first volunteered to be St. Nick as a Rotarian. He liked it so much he’s done it ever since, never missing a holiday season, even performing his cheerful duties last year despite a painful pinched nerve in his back.

McDonald has a mental sack overflowing with memories that he hands out like toys. One of his favorite reminisces of playing Santa involves his youngest daughter, now age 24.

“She was little and with her friends and she didn’t know I was Santa and I came up to her and said, ‘Santa knows your name, Lolly.’ And her mouth dropped, and all her friends said, ‘Santa knows your name,’ Santa knows your name.’ That was cute.”

All the children in La Jolla know McDonald is the “real” Santa, and that the ones they see elsewhere are fakes.

“My favorite (tale) is the little girl that just kept staring and staring, looking over every bit of me and listening to everything I said, and when I saw her grandparents a week later they’d taken her to another place, like a mall, and there was a Santa there. When they were finished (with him), she (girl) said to him (Santa), ‘You must be Santa’s helper. The real Santa’s at the parade and the beach club.’ ”

McDonald has worn out three Santa suits and four beards (kids like to pull). But it’s just part of the job.

After a quarter-century of playing Santa, McDonald pretty much has the part down. He tailors his routine to the disposition of each individual child.

“If they’re frightened or it’s a baby, I tell them (helpers), ‘Put them on my lap facing their mother so they don’t see me until the picture’s being taken.’ If they’re in a good mood, I do clever little things to get their attention and they like it.”

Right now there is no heir apparent to replace McDonald. “I’d be happy to break in someone, though I haven’t talked to anybody about it or anything,” he said.

Concerning what advice he might give an understudy, McDonald noted patience is the key.

“It takes anywhere from two to three hours just to get ready between the makeup and the wig and the beard,” he said, adding the “special moments” one experiences playing the par are more than worth the effort.

“Once someone asked me to take a picture with her mother and I standing together in a parking lot and I did,” McDonald said. “She (her mother) has since passed away, but every time that woman sees me she tells me, ‘My mother had that picture by her bed on a nightstand.’ ”

McDonald can’t think of a better way of getting in the holiday spirit than donning the suit, beard and boots and yielding forth with a ho, ho, ho.

“It’s a nice way to give back to the community,” he concluded.