Voices of the Bay

The Big Guy in Red

Bristol native Michael J. Rielly has been playing Santa for 48 years


“I’ve been playing Santa since I was 8 years old,” says Michael J. Rielly, Bristol native and self-proclaimed Santa Ambassador. “I still believe in Santa.” Dressed in a custom-made red suit of his own design, Michael dedicates his time year-round to visiting children of military, law enforcement, and first responder families who face physical, emotional, and other challenges on behalf of the James D. Rielly Foundation. The nonprofit was established to honor Michael’s grandfather, who played Santa from 1927 until his passing in 1991 and was inducted into the Santa Claus International Hall of Fame.

Michael also runs the online Santa Claus community and social network ClausNet.com. “No one ever sat me down and said to me there is not a Santa,” says Michael. “I never said to my kids there is no Santa (they are now 21 and 26). ‘We can all try to be like Santa’ is what my grandfather used to say, and I truly believe that.”


What’s the number one rule to being Santa?
You are acting and playing a character. You are not Santa.

Which is your favorite holiday – Christmas or the 4th of July?
My favorite is tough to pick. Even though I am the Bristol Town Crier, I have to lean a little towards Christmas because of my Santa work. Both symbolize tradition to me.

What’s your most poignant Santa moment?
I was doing an event in Providence and a little girl was standing alone in line waiting to come up. I notice she seemed very nervous but eager. She eventually got to me, sat on my lap, and I asked her a few questions. When I asked if there was anything I could get her for Christmas, she said, “I just want my daddy to be safe.” I asked where he was and she said she didn’t know but that he wasn’t safe. I don’t pry so I didn’t ask anymore. The answer is difficult. I can’t say he will be safe. So, I did say, “I promise you I will pray for you and think about you and your daddy.” She then stood off to the side watching for a while, all alone. The next time I looked over she was gone, and afterwards I looked around for her. That was ten years ago – I still think of her today.

Best Christmas movie?
It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s also my favorite all-time movie. I cry every time I watch it. I feel like George Bailey. I love when Clarence says, “No man is a failure who has friends.” So true.

Favorite Christmas cookie?
The round ones.

Santa’s advice to naysayers?
You know what happens when you stop believing in Santa? You get underwear!