KAUNEONGA LAKE, NY — When Al Frangipane puts on his red Santa suit and goes to meet a bunch of children, he is transformed. “When I walk into that room, I’m Santa,” he said, “I’m not Al Frangipane. For an hour to two, I’m only Santa.” Ho, ho, ho!
“One of the biggest thrills,” Santa Frangipane recalled recently, “is the day we do CASA.” That’s the day Sullivan County’s Court-Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) put on a party for the court system’s foster children. They come to see Santa Claus, sit on his knee and share their wish lists with him. At the annual CASA party, Frangipane may have as many as 100 to 150 children line up to tell Santa what they want for Christmas.
“It’s really a festive day,” he explained, “and it’s an experience those children wouldn’t ordinarily have.” Each child also has a chance to have a photograph taken with Santa and gets to take home a gift.
Santa’s rounds in Sullivan County include more than the annual CASA party, which was last Saturday at the restaurant Mr. Willy’s in Monticello, courtesy of Bill Sipos.This year, Santa Frangipane suited up for a big bash at Bethel Woods in the Events Gallery, an event at the Smallwood firehouse and a visit to another party put on by the Police Benevolent Association in Monticello.
Santa almost never travels alone. “My wife, Maria, is my Mrs. Claus,” Frangipane said. “She does my makeup.” And along with the help of elf, a.k.a. Shelly Knepper, who’s indispensable, she talks to the children and helps to warm up the crowd for Santa’s big entrance.
“I remember one time at Bethel Woods (it may have been the first year we did that),” he recalled, “the choir was there singing, people were standing around, and I saw a family standing by the gift shop. Their little girl (she was probably around four) saw me, too. Her eyes got as big as saucers. So, I got down on one knee and I waved to her to come over. Well, she ran so fast and she jumped in my lap, she almost knocked me over,” he laughed as he remembered the story.
Sometimes a child will take a tug on Santa’s beard, and more often than you’d think a child will say, “But, Santa, you’re supposed to know my name.” (Frangipane replies that he sees so many children he just needs a little reminder.)
“It’s my feeling about being Santa that when you dress the part, you have to become Santa Claus,” he said. “I really like to see the children have confidence in Santa, to look me in the eye and have the feeling they can trust you.” He tells how a child often will sit on his lap and then search the crowd to catch the eye of a parent or a foster parent. He admits he likes to watch the parents’ faces light up, too. “The parents enjoy these occasions as much as the children,” he observed.
Sometimes, something really special happens when a child talks to him. On one Sunday this month, Santa Frangipane had three separate children sit on his knee to ask for gifts for someone else. “One little girl told me, ‘Santa, you took care of me last year. I don’t need anything this year. Give my present to someone who needs it more than me.’” Another child, around six or seven, told Santa to give his present to his brother. These are the stories this Santa Claus loves. “I really wish more people could understand what magic happens,” he said.
This year, he had one experience that gave him goose bumps. A boy came and sat on his lap and together they held a conversation. Santa asked the boy a few questions and the boy answered. And then the boy asked Santa a question: “Where’s your reindeer?” After that the boy got down from Santa’s lap, and the boy’s mother came over to speak to Frangipane. She was very moved by the whole experience, explaining that her son was autistic and generally doesn’t’ speak to people, not even much at home.
Frangipane has been playing Santa Claus for at least 45 years. It all started in Brooklyn for family and friends. “Being Santa was something I inherited from an uncle of mine who did it for years,” he said. The whole project continued after he retired from the bench on the New York State Supreme Court in Brooklyn and moved to Sullivan County.
Frangipane is active in his community. He’s a Red Cross volunteer, a member of Bethel Lions Club, a fire commissioner at Kauneonga Lake and chairperson of a luminaries project (for 13 years) in Kauneonga Lake. He and his wife are also in involved with the Hurleyville museum.
But the highlight of his year is Christmastime. “The other 11 months of the year may have their ups and downs,” he said, “but come December, I know I’m going to be happy.” Christmas, he said, always gives him a clearer picture of what the world should always be like the rest of the year.