It’s official: Santa Claus is coming to town. Bristol, to be exact.
The jolly one himself has set up shop at the corner of State and Thames streets and has already been bringing holiday cheer to children of all ages and abilities. “This is my gift to the town and community,” says Michael Rielly, founder and “chief merriment officer” of the James D. Rielly Foundation. While being Santa is nothing new to Reilly, the Bristol Santa House project is an entirely new endeavor. The 20x14’ house was built in Vermont, then shipped to Bristol last month, where electrical, finish carpentry, painting, and the final touches were set in place to create a holiday experience to remember for both the young and young at heart.
According to the foundation, the goal of the Santa House, part of the annual Bristol Christmas Festival, is “to create a family-friendly holiday destination full of joy, whimsy, and nostalgia, where the season comes alive through interactive experiences and Hallmark-worthy moments.” Rielly explains that though the house is open to the public, it was created to accommodate children with developmental or physical challenges, and families with financial struggles.
“It’s really for kids with special needs, autism, Down syndrome – kids who can’t always go to a mall and wait in a long line,” he says. Bright lights, loud music, and large crowds can be overwhelming for children with sensory processing issues, he explains, so a reservation system is in place to ensure children can visit with Santa one-on-one, sans sensory overload.
“Every child deserves to experience the joy of Christmas, regardless of circumstance,” says Rielly. “Sadly, many children with special needs never have the opportunity to meet with Santa, and some families simply cannot afford Christmas gifts.” Rielly says volunteers who work with children with special needs have stepped up to ensure the Bristol Santa House will be a warm and welcoming space, and gifts are plentiful thanks to generous donors.
Rielly, the Bristol Town Crier since 2015, is just doing what is already in his DNA. Being Santa has been a Rielly family tradition dating back to 1927, when his grandfather, Jim “Papa” Rielly, spotted an impoverished family in Bristol living in an abandoned chicken coop. Then just 19, the elder Rielly mustered up what he could during the challenging economic period to bring the family some Christmas joy by being Santa. He would go on to be the longest running consecutive Santa Claus in history – a streak recorded in the International Santa Claus Hall of Fame in Santa Claus, Indiana (yes, it’s real), and would annually bring the holiday spirit to orphanages, hospitals, nursing homes, schools, churches, charitable organizations, and military bases. (Embedded in Bristol’s history forever, the elder Rielly also served as Bristol Town Crier, from 1975 to 1989.)
Michael was first tapped to be Santa in 1971, at the tender age of eight, in the Christmas play at Bristol’s now-closed Byfield School. He’d go on to play Santa for the Rhode Island Veterans Home, for Juvenile Diabetes Association and countless other organizations, continuing a mission started by his family nearly a century ago. “I lead the Fourth of July Parade in the most patriotic town in the country, and I get to be Santa? I got the best job in the world.”
Learn more at Bristol Santa House, visit JDRFoundation.org/bristol-santa-house
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