Did you know Santa lives in Pine River?
Everyone knows that Santa goes incognito during the off season and he is known by many names. In Pine River, he flies under the radar as mild-mannered local, Shawn Michael. If you doubt him, he’ll gladly show you his authentic North Pole driver’s license or the tattoo of Rudolph’s grandpa, Randolph.
Michael is known around town as the son of Bill and Janet Michael, a pair of former school teachers. Some may remember Bill as a past principal in Pine River.
“There’s plenty of people who were here and are still here that had my dad as an elementary school principal, including me. It wasn’t too fun at first,” Shawn Michael said.
Though he loves Minnesota more than most places, Michael’s true home is Alaska, where he was called by high school friend Tom Brown in 1981.
“They kept calling me and bugging me to go up there. I was still at home and said, ‘Heck with it, let’s go,’” Michael said.
A group of friends from the Pine River area soon joined Michael, as did his parents, who became teachers for indigenous groups of people. Michael did many different jobs in Alaska, including truck driving, construction and painting, but he was called back to Minnesota for a year of education in a very different trade.
In 1993, this Santa attended classes in Staples to become a chef and promptly returned to the cold up north in 1994 after completing his education.
“The coldest Santa has ever seen it up there was 72 below,” he said.
It was the 1980s and his sleigh at the time was Fiesta model, built by Ford. It was a manual transmission, and Michael had left it in gear overnight. It was so cold in the morning that he snapped the stick shift off trying to get it out of gear. In spite of the cold, Alaska is still his favorite place to be.
“I wouldn’t trade it for anything. If I could have been born and raised anywhere besides here it would have been Alaska, because I’m a hunting, fishing fool,” Michael said. “I’ve been places and done things and seen things that maybe 1 percent of the earth’s population will ever get to do. I tell everybody, before you leave this earth you need to go see Alaska.”
Michael has many fond memories of Alaska, including a trip to a mountain pass overlooking the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. His favorite memory is likely of hunting Dall sheep with his father. Family and togetherness are even more important to Michael than Alaska. So when his parents returned to Pine River for their retirement, he followed in 2001.
“I wanted to be close to them,” Michael said.
When Michael’s mother caught a viral infection 15 years ago and passed away, it was just the first of three tragedies that his family would face. Six years ago his only brother passed away from an overdose, and his only sister later died of an aneurism suffered on Independence Day.
“Holidays aren’t real fun to me, so this is a way for me to keep my mind off it and brings some joy to kids. It’s still hard to talk about,” Michael said.
About four years ago Michael got involved with the Pine River American Legion’s holiday programming. They needed Santa, and they needed a chef. Michael had been Santa on and off since a holiday program in high school, and he had been Santa in Alaska for daycares and other settings, so he had experience in both positions.
“They needed a Santa Claus and they asked me to do it. I said, ‘Sure, I’ll do it.’ Then the very first year I was hooked. It was so much fun. I got beat up a little bit,” Michael said. “The little kids come up and they’re kicking and screaming when it’s time for the pictures. Of course, the parents want a picture of the kids with Santa, but some of them aren’t very agreeable. They kick and claw and scratch.”
Michael has experienced many heart-warming moments as Santa while holding tiny babies and listening to the special Christmas wishes from some children, including one selfless 8-year-old.
“I asked him what he wanted for Christmas. He looked me right in the eye with a big smile and said, ‘Just for everybody to be happy.’ I just about cried,” Michael said. “That kid’s either been through some hard times in his life or he’s got some incredible parents.”
Another hard moment was when one small child just asked for shoes for Christmas. Being able to help children be happy takes the sting out of Michael’s holidays. Serving a community Christmas dinner at the Legion gives him a similar feeling.
“Christmas Day, Santa will be cooking Christmas dinner for the community in Pine River,” Michael said. “It keeps me busy and makes me feel good to feed these people and do this for everybody. We usually feed at least 200 people.”
Michael is able to empathize with many of those who come for the Christmas meal, as some of them are there just for the company.
“Some people come in who do need the meal, but there are some donations that show there are some people there for another reason,” Michael said. “It’s because they either don’t have anywhere else to go, any other family to go have it with, or for a lot of them it’s just a good time to get together and socialize. It’s not that they need the food, the donation box shows it. There’s $50 bills, there’s checks for $50, there’s $20 bills. It’s not just because people need the food. ”
The meal is free, but there is a donation box for the local food shelf.
His significant other, Joy Smoot, known affectionately as Mrs. Claus, has been helping Michael in recent years. She is also a chef, but also serves as moral support.
“This old Santa couldn’t be doing it without her. I’m serious. She’s an incredible woman,” Michael said. “I want people to know, if it weren’t for her this wouldn’t be possible. It would be tough.”
Starting this holiday season, Michael will offer his services as Santa to local businesses, daycares and private homes. Reach him at 218-587-5954.
Michael still visits Alaska where his son lives and has three children. Some day he plans to return.
“I imagine once my dad’s gone I’ll probably go back up there. I really miss it,” Michael said.
It seems you can get Santa out of The North Pole (Alaska), but you can’t get The North Pole (Alaska) out of Santa.