Secret Santas

Three generations of Bristolians spread Christmas cheer far and wide

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Clad in a red snowsuit festooned by his mother’s black dress belt and donning a pair of worn-down cowboy boots, Michael Rielly steadied himself as his grandfather, Jim “Papa” Rielly, carefully sprayed the third-grader’s hair white and glued a matching beard to his young face. The year was 1971 and Michael was chosen to be Santa Claus in the Christmas play at Bristol’s now-closed Byfield School. Before making his acting debut, Papa Rielly gave the eight-year-old some tips: make a grand entrance, grab his pillow-stuffed belly like a bowl full of jelly, and drop a few well-placed “ho, ho, ho’s.” After that moment on stage, Michael knew being Santa would be a part of his life forever. What he didn’t know was that he was continuing a family tradition dating back to 1927 – even through today.

Papa Rielly never set out to be the big man in red. The country was in the midst of a recession, inching towards the Great Depression, and though many people were struggling, the 19-year-old Jim Rielly was overcome when he came across a family in Bristol living in an abandoned chicken coop. “They had nothing and Papa thought, ‘Well, these people are worse off than me,’ and he went around town and he gathered up whatever he could, probably mostly food -– oranges I’m told -– in 1927, an orange was a great thing! So he cobbled together a makeshift bag and he brought Christmas to this family,” explains Michael. “Sixty-two years later...he is the longest running, that we know of, consecutive Santa Claus in history.” The streak is recorded in the International Santa Claus Hall of Fame in Santa Claus, Indiana. Yes, that’s a real thing in a real place.

Though Papa would have 15 grandchildren, Michael became his right-hand little man, joining him yearly at Santa gigs and the Bristol Fourth of July Parade, where Jim served as the town’s first ceremonial town crier. “He was very famous throughout all of New England, known for being a generous person, but mostly he was known as Rhode Island’s Santa Claus,” says Michael.

Born in 1908, Jim Rielly was a lifelong Bristolian whose charitable acts as Santa Claus landed him plenty of national media attention. Countless newspapers, including The New York Times, plus local and national programs like PM Magazine, heralded his dedication to bringing the holiday spirit to orphanages, hospitals, nursing homes, schools, churches, charitable organizations, military bases – even the Rhode Island State House. While every visit was important and warmed his heart, he was especially dedicated to visiting seniors and children with mental and physical challenges. “I believe that’s what made him so endearing to others,” says Michael. “He certainly had that twinkle in his eye.” And he never once accepted a dime for his time.

What Jim lacked in regards to the typical Santa physique he made up for in passion and character. “Jim Rielly was a short little Irish guy and he had a unique kinda Irish-y New England accent,” describes Michael, “and just everybody loved him...there’s an oil painting of him hanging in Bristol City Hall to this day.” Continuing his legacy would become a family affair.

When Michael was 13, his mom worked at the Rhode Island Veterans Home and she asked her son a favor: dress up as Santa for the patients. “I was like, ‘Mom, they’re gonna know. I’m just a kid. They’re not gonna think I’m Santa,’” remembers Michael. “She said, ‘It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have the best suit or if you look like Santa. What matters is that you are bringing joy to these folks that don’t see their families. Some don’t have any family, any relatives, or anything like that.’ And she was right. They didn’t see me as a 13-year-old kid. They just saw Santa walking through their door.” And that was it. He was hooked.

Papa Rielly passed in 1991, just before Michael and his wife Patty welcomed their first child, a son they named Sean (who came home from the hospital on Christmas Day – in a red stocking, naturally). By the time they welcomed daughter Meghan, non-stop Santa appearances during the holiday season (and sporadically throughout the year) were as commonplace as choosing a Christmas tree – it just came with the territory. As the children entered grade school, keeping Michael’s Santa shenanigans top secret took considerable planning and various…untruths. “It was really hard – I used to have to hide everything in the closet and a lot of the gigs I would go to, Sean and his sister were at those parties. I’d pretend to have to stay behind or that I was going on a trip for work.”

Among these was the annual Christmas party for the Juvenile Diabetes Association – a cause that hit close to home as Sean is diabetic. Not only did young Sean have no idea that the jolly Santa who lit up their party each year was his father, but he had no idea that one day, he’d be the Santa charged with spreading Christmas spirit to the next generation of these kids. “It’s been an amazing experience for me to see Sean going around to the tables just like I did for him and his sister back then...and using some of my same lines! But he’s got his own style; he’s his own Santa,” beams Michael.

Though most of Michael and Sean’s Santa appearances are for parties, home visits for clients (“I’d never be a mall Santa,” Michael laughs) and playing Santa at local church Christmas services and in their own community is especially heartwarming (and for years, few of even their closest friends knew it was the Riellys behind the beard).

This holiday season, some things will look different in Bristol, yet other traditions will remain unchanged. As chairman of the town’s Annual Christmas Festival, Michael and his committee colleagues have been working for months to create a safe holiday experience that adheres to COVID-19 precautions and safety guidelines. It’s taken substantial time and creativity to develop ways to make that magic. “We can’t do the traditional Breakfast with Santa, which we’ve done since 1987, but we’ve built a Santa’s Workshop in one of the empty storefronts in Bristol and it is amazing. It’s so cool,” Michael promises. After its unveiling, the workshop will be open on scheduled days throughout the season and of course during the Holiday Preview Weekend, Grand Illumination, and the annual Snowflake Raffle. “Santa is going to be in the workshop checking his list and interacting with kids on the other side of the glass, so it’ll be totally COVID safe,” he says.

Both Michael and Sean empathize with the fatigue, the worry, the hardships, and the way peoples’ lives have changed since the arrival of the pandemic – all of which have been compounded by stress, fear, and other emotions surrounding the divisiveness of the nation at this time in our history. They acknowledge that now, more than ever, the young (and often, the young-at-heart) need reassurance and the promise of Christmas.

“The most important message for me that I will try to get across to any child that I see or interact with in any way, is that it’s all going to be okay. To tell them, ‘We’ll get past this and Christmas will still come. Nothing is going to stop Christmas from coming.’” From deep in his chest, and likely his soul, Michael projects a booming but soothing merry tone, declaring, “Santa’s almost 1,700 years old! I’ve seen all kinds of things happen to the world and we always get over it. Everything will be okay.” As Clement C. Moore wrote in his famed poem, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, “A wink of his eye and a twist of his head / Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.”

 

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