On a bright and frosty morning decades ago, a young boy and his grandfather whip across the frozen Iowa farmland. With blankets covering their laps and snowflakes glittering their faces, their one-horse open sleigh pull them onward. The grandfather's favorite horse, Diamond, is adorned with, quite literally, jingle bells. It is Christmas.
Today, that same boy has a great white beard, a red velvet bag with a golden drawstring and a jeweled ring, decoratively embroidered with the initials S.C. He sits in the midst of an ugly-Christmas-sweater party, asking children what they want for the holidays and curing their bashfulness with a seamless stream of quips and jokes that only come from years of experience and a heart of gold (or, perhaps, tinsel). Patrick Cunningham is Santa Claus. It's not a performance; it's a presence he wields like a source of light, coloring the whole room.
"You know, I bet you could ask 100 kids what they want to be when they grow up, and none of them would even think to say Santa Claus," a participant with a hideous sweater says.
"I never ever foresaw myself being Santa when I was younger," Cunningham says. "But somehow it made sense."
"You play such a good Santa!" another party-goer says.
"What do you mean 'playing Santa'?" Cunningham responds, "I am Santa!"
It took three major events to transform a young boy from Michigan, admiring the jingle bells on his grandfather's horses, into a real and true St. Nicholas. It all started when he set his eyes on a cheap, old Santa outfit in a church. During an annual children's pageant, he spotted the garish thing in the pastor's office, and an idea sparked.
"It had this terrible fake beard and was just generally cheap," he says. "But it was calling to me. It was saying 'wear me.'"
He was much younger and thinner back then, so he even had to stuff pillows inside the suit to look like more of a classic Santa. Then he snuck around the outside of the church, burst in the front doors and the sanctuary erupted. Although he wasn't planning to, he ended up handing out presents as Santa the rest of the night.
For a few years after that fateful night, Cunningham occasionally dressed as Santa for one-off events. But soon, the second event in his transformation occurred: His mother passed away on Christmas day.
"It completely crushed me," he says. "Suddenly a day that was always filled with laughter and joy had this river of melancholy flowing through it. I cry every Christmas."
He wondered how to fix the sadness, and realized that spreading joy to others as Santa Claus would fill his days with happiness as well. On that very day, he began growing his beard out and brought the hope contained in Santa into his own heart.
So now he held occasional Yuletide office but more importantly had the spirit of Christmas within him. The third and final step consisted of a flight to Branson, Missouri, populated with literally hundreds of Santas.
"I went to a my first full-bearded Santa convention," he says. "At first I felt self-conscious when I got on the plane, then I realized I looked like everyone else."
The town flooded with ruddy, bearded men. At any cafe, at any pool, dozens of Kris Kringles lingered about. At the conference, Cunningham made some of his first professional connections as a Santa. This ultimately led to him obtaining the professionally-made Santa outfit that he still wears to this day.
"I'll never forget the first time I donned this suit, THE suit," he says. "I looked in the mirror and I didn't see myself anymore. For the first time, I actually saw Santa Claus."
All that began some 30 years ago. Now, in his 60s, Cunningham is more Santa than ever. With having seen more than 50,000 children in a single season, he estimates there are well over a million photos of him. Now he has his own personal "sleigh" (a bright red truck with ST NICK as the license plate), an active Facebook fan page, a rope of jingle bells and a voice capable of bellowing out "Ho-ho-hos" that you can feel in your chest.
At his Sunday post on University Boulevard, a trio of chipper college girls crowd around to take selfies with him. One of them suddenly looks up from her phone and says, "Wait, you're the legit Santa that everyone talks about!"
"You're famous, if you didn't know," another chimes in.
"Thank you," Cunningham says, laughing. "Did you know Santa Claus is also a UA fan?"
The three of them say goodbye and wander back to campus, making way for a father and his 4-year-old daughter, and the eventual wonder that ensues for her.
Alongside Santa's sleigh is a balloon-making station run by the professional clown 2-Eee, although during the holiday season she switches into an elf.
"He's a wonderful Santa for us to have," 2-Eee says. "Everyone wants to take pictures with him. College students, adults, even 'big' kids that think they're too old take pictures."
The sleigh and balloon table, adorned with fake snow, festive ribbons and an all-important mailbox to the North Pole, are set up by the Marshall Foundation, a local charitable organization that owns real estate on and around University Boulevard and uses those property investments to support health, education and youth-oriented projects.
"He's great," says Jane McCollum, general manager for the Marshall Foundation. "It's even better than just decorating the street—with him and the sleigh, it becomes interactive."
The Marshall Foundation and University Boulevard are staples to the Tucson community, almost as much as the near-relentless sun, which Cunningham braves in his Santa outfit. The powerful heat and sun (arguably more similar to the original Christmas in Nazareth, as opposed to the stereotypical "White Christmas") does offer a unique benefit, however: the opportunity to get a photo with a Santa in sunglasses.
"I have my classic North Pole Santa glasses," he says. "But if people find out I have sunglasses, they'd definitely want me to wear those. Especially people from out of town; they want the 'Arizona Santa.'"
But even with the fun he has as Santa and the joy shared with others, Cunningham views Santa as more than just a role. He is very protective of the image of Santa and is dedicated to making the experience a purely positive event for children. He says it is this loyalty to the craft that separates him from the "pseudo-Santas" and "subordinate Clauses."
"I do admit to a bit of an ego," he says. "It's because for many, Santa is just a job. But not for me. For me, there is no script. It's in my heart and soul. I don't have to act."
And with his past and ongoing efforts with charities like the Interfaith Community Services, Ronald McDonald House Charities, Marshall Foundation and others, his full embodiment shines brightly.
The Santa Season begins the Monday before Thanksgiving, with a charity pie donation night, and generally lasts until Christmas (or a few days beyond). Cunningham has a toolbox, and his jingle bells are the first things he sees when he opens it.
"When I open my toolbox and hear the bells, that's when I know the season has started," he says.
It is an incredibly busy time, often two or three events are scheduled for him every single day for a month: private parties, Christmas sweater gatherings, the picture spot on University Boulevard, business receptions, the Desert Museum, photo ops at parks, the downtown Parade of Lights. And at the end of it all, his wife (a.k.a. Mrs. Claus) trims his fluffy white beard back a few inches and he transforms back into Patrick.
"The transformation may have happened, but I still have the heart of Santa in me," he says.
The look of Santa must stick as well, considering that even on the off-season, while he's around town in his normal clothes, children run up to him.
"The parents are generally mortified and say 'I'm sorry, my kid thinks you're Santa.' But I just smile and say 'Well, they're right.' I believe it's kind of like how some animals have better senses, children can just spot a Santa, and not only by the look of one, but by the aura."
It is to these same children that he dedicates his work. Every kid he takes a picture with, whether it be on his sleigh or in a park, he sends off with a simple and all-important "I love you."
"I treat the responsibility of Santa as sacred," he says. "Christmas is wonder and awe, and I think it's needed more today than any other. These are cynical times, and kids need to believe in themselves."
Part of that "wonder" of Christmas for children is a healthy dose of belief and even skepticism. That is why Cunningham says he encourages kids to ask him questions: Is that a real beard? Who's your favorite reindeer? Even the big one—are you real?
"Having them ask me these questions and getting answers for them only solidifies Santa," he says. "Because then I can respond with, 'Of course I'm real! Here I am.' It goes both ways as well. There are always those older kids that go, 'Well, I don't believe in you,'" he says, feigning a grimace, "And I say, 'Well that's fine, because I believe in you.'"
Cunningham says that's the biggest aspect of life Santa can convey: a sense of hope.
"I think Christmas proves that the little things ARE the big things," he says. "It's not about what toys these kids get; it's about love. You're not going to remember all the things you got for Christmas when you were 12, but you are going to remember the first time you saw snow or that cup of hot chocolate you drank on the first day of winter."
One of the little things that especially stuck with Cunningham was his meeting with a young fan named Daisy. Some years ago, while taking pictures as he normally did for the holiday season, a 7-year-old girl posed with him for a picture.
Daisy said that she wanted to give him a gift in return and offered up their picture together, which he happily accepted. Then she said something which would stick with him for the rest of his life.
"You look just like my daddy," Daisy said.
He soon learned that her father had recently passed away.
"I teared up pretty bad from that," he says. "I had to take a moment to gather myself. But I later learned that, well, I didn't look at all like her father. It was the aura. She felt safe and joyous around Santa just as she did with her dad. I was able to give her that."
From his decades of charitable work, he has dozens of stories similar to Daisy's. But in the end, they all coalesce into a single word.
"The true message of Christmas—and not just the historical Christmas—is so huge that it would be hard to encompass or describe," he says. "But ultimately, I'm talking about hope."
That is the biggest thing he wants for people to take away from the concept of Santa Claus: No matter how bad or difficult your current circumstances, these too shall pass. And as we get older and jaded and further from those crisp childhood mornings, we might approach the sorrowful belief that Santa Claus isn't real. But with a man like Patrick Cunningham, he may as well exist.