slice of life

Santa Claus is coming to town — and he’s wearing a leather jacket

Jessica Sheldon | Photo Editor

John Wheeler has always been more of a Thanksgiving kind of guy. His wife was the one really loved Christmas.

John Wheeler glanced around the restaurant before digging into his breakfast.

“The kids know Santa eats cookies and milk, but normally you don’t see a Santa out in public eating a meal,” he explained.

Even when he’s not playing Santa Claus, Wheeler is always careful to fit the image. He doesn’t drink or smoke, and keeps a smile on his face even when he’s just driving.

Because even without his suit on, it’s hard not to see Wheeler as the mythical man. Glasses frame his grey-blue eyes. His handlebar moustache is twisted into a curl on either end. And, of course, he has a long white beard to match.

But Wheeler doesn’t fit every Santa stereotype. Over his red T-shirt, Wheeler wears a black leather motorcycle vest decked out with American flag patches. Playing Santa isn’t Wheeler’s only love — he also owns Santa’s Leathers, a motorcycle clothing and custom embroidery shop in North Syracuse.

The business got its start at flea market in Pulaski, about 45 minutes north of Syracuse, where Wheeler brought leather jackets and other motorcycle gear to re-sell.

That’s where Wheeler met Barbara Rogers, who was running an embroidery shop. When someone came to Wheeler looking to sew a patch onto a vest, he sent the customer to Rogers. Soon, they realized how compatible their businesses were.

“And after that, we just became like brother and sister,” Rogers said.

As rent at the flea market went up and business slowed down, Wheeler and Rogers decided to open a merged shop in Rogers’ garage.

Wheeler stocks leather goods and bike gear, from vests to helmets to boots. Rogers embroiders those jackets and creates custom patches. She made one of the patches on Wheeler’s vest — the silhouette of a motorcycle with an American flag behind it.

Balancing the shop’s upkeep with playing Santa and working double shifts at Syracuse’s Pepsi plant is hard, especially as the holidays approach. Wheeler’s “I’ll rest when I’m dead” mentality keeps him going.

But that determination really stems from elsewhere.

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Jessica Sheldon | Photo Editor

More so than Christmas, Thanksgiving has always been Wheeler’s specialty. He used to love getting up early, preparing dishes so the whole house smelled like turkey when everyone else got up.

Christmas was his wife’s favorite holiday.

“My wife had breast cancer,” Wheeler said, pausing. “She was with me til 2012. She fought it for 12 years, she was tough lady, she really fought it hard. And she was my inspiration for everything.”

Jean supported his shop wholeheartedly, Wheeler said. And she’s the reason he starting playing Santa Claus.

Wheeler used to wear his beard all different ways — a goatee, just a moustache. About 10 years ago, he was in a store with his current style, a full beard.

“A little boy approached me and his eyes were as big as saucers,” Wheeler recalled. “And he said ‘Santa?’”

He went home and told his wife and daughter, and they ordered him an early Christmas present — his first Santa suit.

That first year, Wheeler only played Santa for his grandson Marcus, who was born just four days before Christmas.

“It’s just snowballed from there,” Wheeler said. “This year, I’ve got every available minute taken up doing different people’s houses I get to go to.”

When Wheeler first got started in the role, he learned the Santa basics from a man who lives in northern New York state. He studied the history of St. Nicholas and Santa Claus, and always tries to be someone children can look up to.

A lot of it comes naturally. He has a prepared answer for when kids ask how Santa can deliver all the presents in one night: Only 30 percent of the world is land, and with different time zones, Santa has 24 hours to cover it all.

He’s since dropped the act for Marcus. Wheeler’s daughter didn’t want him getting confused — and it doesn’t seem like he is.

“Last year, we were out in a store and people were calling me Santa, and he goes ‘Grandad, why are they calling you Santa Claus?’” Wheeler recalled. “And I said ‘Well, some people think I look like him, do you?’ And he says ‘No, no.’”

Marcus saw another Santa this year, while other kids got to appreciate Wheeler’s act. He just made a stop to visit his friend Eric Pollack and listen to what Pollack’s two boys wanted for Christmas. Pollack met Wheeler because of his Santa persona — Pollack’s son spotted Wheeler at a flea market about six years ago.

“We were just going through the flea market and we stumbled on Santa’s booth and my son kept looking at me going ‘Look, it’s Santa, it’s Santa!’” Pollack said. “Right before we walked away from the booth, John actually pulled out a sack of toys and gave my son a toy dragon.”

That giving spirit is something Wheeler reflects year round, Pollack said. And while he usually just plays Santa for friends, he’s taken on bigger assignments too.

He once visited a school in a low-income community and he was struck by what each child asked for.

One little girl asked for just a ball for Christmas. Another asked for a set of sheets for her bed. A third asked if he could bring her mom home from Iraq.

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Graphic illustration by Kiran Ramsey

Experiences like these help Wheeler appreciate what he has, he said.

Wheeler’s wife gave birth to their daughter in the first year of their marriage. 16 years later, they had their son. Since his wife died, he visits his daughter and grandson in Austin, Texas every year.

His family, and especially his wife, made every holiday season special.

She would get a special ornament to commemorate each year. And she was a fanatic about decorating the tree, supervising as every decoration was hung on the branches.

“The last year she was alive we had 4,000 lights on the house and the garage,” Wheeler said.

“Christmas really was her holiday.”

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