Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record
Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record
Reporter’s Note: We at the Daily Record have often wondered, like everyone else around the world, about Santa’s secret for seeming to be everywhere at once. Finally, the secret has been revealed: Certain people are called upon to assist in the noble work of Father Christmas — and the Daily Record was fortunate enough to have one of those helpers share his story. Caution — younger readers should take care before reading this story.
For more than a decade, Mark Rowland has assumed a sort of second identity during the weeks between Veteran’s Day up through Christmas.
In that interval of time, widely known as the holiday season, Rowland, with his white beard flowing down his face, dons a red and white wool suit, arousing smiles and cheers from those he encounters.
No, Rowland, is not THE Santa Claus. He is a resident of Roswell, not of the North Pole. When he enters a home, he does so by walking through a doorway and not sliding down a chimney. And he drives a white Dodge caravan with Area 51 stickers, and not an airborne sleigh powered by a stable of reindeer.
Nonetheless, Rowland, 64, is part of the worldwide fraternity of Santa Claus doppelgängers that can be spotted in big box stores, malls, office holiday parties, community gatherings, photo sessions and toy drives, who are just as instrumental to the holiday experience as the jolly old elf they resemble.
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And Rowland says he derives just as much joy from the interactions he has with people as a Santa as they have with him.
“It’s just a wonderful experience being able to put on that red suit and take on the role of Santa Claus and really embody that. You become part of the Christmas spirit,” Rowland said.
Fourteen years ago is when Rowland first took on the role of the world’s most well-known gift giver. An employee at a Walmart in Kansas at that time, he did so at the request of store management — children would have the chance to have their photos taken with him in full garb and of course, tell what they wanted for Christmas.
“I was asked in part to do Santa because I had a beard and didn’t need additional padding for the suit,” Rowland said with a bit of laughter in his voice.
He graciously accepted the part and has fallen in love with it ever since.
“Just to see the joy in their eyes and even the joy in moms’ and dads’ and grandparents’ and aunts’ and uncles’ eyes, as their children, nieces, nephews, grandchildren come do that. It was just a joy to be a part of that,” Rowland said.
In all his years as a Santa, Rowland said he has never had a baby spit up on him or a baby’s diaper leak while on his lap.
Years after he first put on the suit, Rowland would move to New Mexico, and for a time, was a Santa Claus at the Walmart in Artesia. Eventually, he would branch out to make appearances at other venues, mostly in Roswell and sometimes in Texas. Some of his most frequent gigs have been a toy drive at Roswell Nissan, a breakfast at the Roswell Joy Center and Peach Tree Village among others.
And then of course there are malls.
In an average year, Rowland said, he does five or six events a year in Roswell, but years when he is a mall Santa, that consumes his time entirely.
And just as Santa himself must juggle commitments, so too does Rowland.
“I found out that once you become a mall Santa, you can kind of be on an emergency pinch hit list,” he said.
One year, Rowland said he was already booked for several events in Roswell when he received a call from someone with the Sunland Park Mall in El Paso. The caller said they had a “bad santa” who they needed to let go.
“And I explained that I have some gigs in Roswell that are already set up,” he said. Rowland said they were willing to work around his schedule, and they also put him up in a hotel and provided him with a rental car.
Visits with Rowland or any of the other Santas for that matter leave an imprint in the minds and hearts of children, and nearly every old photo album contains at least one photo of a portrait of a child on the lap of a Santa at some venue, making him a small part of that person’s biography.
And Rowland said he also is impacted by what he sees and those he visits. Sometimes he has appeared at the Roswell Refuge Center as Santa to interact with children and families facing tough times.
Then there are those children who brim with excitement when they see him in full uniform.
Rowland said one year he was a Santa in the lawn and garden section at a Walmart when a little boy saw him while standing on the other end of the store. The little boy then bolted across the store, jumped into the air and landed on Rowland’s lap, yelling out “Santa” with joy.
“It was just a really good experience,” Rowland said.
In another instance, he brought joy to a child by way of a Christmas Day private visit. That year at the request of a boy’s father, Rowland went full garb to the boy’s house to bring him in person a golden retriever puppy.
When Rowland rang the doorbell, he had the puppy tucked in his jacket. When the boy answered, he presented him with the puppy.
“The little boy answered the door and was so amazed that Santa was at the door and had a puppy,” he said.
The father of the boy was also thrilled that Rowland was able to provide such a unique moment for his child.
But the enthusiasm is not limited to children.
“You get it from all different directions: adults and children,” Rowland said.
One time, Rowland was a Santa on a set at the Sunland Park Mall, when he heard another voice — this time an adult— shouting “Santa.”
He looked and saw an adult woman dressed in a camouflage military uniform coming down an escalator. She then ran over and jumped in his lap, just like a child.
The woman, who was a private in the military, said she had always wanted to have her picture taken in uniform with Santa. A desire, which Rowland helped fulfill.
In another instance, he said, two 88-year-old women came up to him and were giddy and laughing. He said they wanted to kiss Santa, and so he let them give him a kiss on each cheek.
One of the central drivers behind the desire to see a Santa is for children to present their Christmas wishlist. Rowland said he sees that every year. This year Rowland represented Santa at the Sunset Mall in San Angelo, Texas, and said he recently had two brothers approach him: one with a list a page long of items he wanted, while the boy’s brother had a list two pages long.
Rowland said this year the most common requests have been for hoverboards; LOL dolls, Hatchimals and Barbies, along with Transformers, monster trucks, video games and gaming systems.
In his years as a Santa, Rowland said he has seen a shift in gift preferences from dolls and Matchbox cars to more video games, computers and tablets,
And he said, with the COVID-19 pandemic and schools now engaged with distance learning, some of those items such as laptops or iPads are no longer luxuries but necessities.
“It’s just like for New Mexico, the kids have been having to do this online learning so it is really critical that they have a reliable piece of equipment so they can get online and do their lessons,” he said.
But occasionally, Rowland said, he is astonished by some requests. This year, he said two older girls approached him and said they did not want anything, that they had everything they needed and were just happy to be able to spend the holiday with their family.
“And I just thought, ‘Wow, out of the mouths of babes comes something — comes some of the most touching comments,” he said.
An open ear
There are also times though when the desires of those who come to see Rowland as Santa go well beyond the material.
He said at the mall this year, one girl who was recently adopted by her grandparents came up to him every day.
The girl’s mother had died and her father was in Lubbock. When he asked her what she wants for Christmas, she said that she just wanted to be with her father for Christmas.
“And that just gets to the meat of the matter, you know? To be able to just experience Christmas with family,” he said.
Rowland said that he then told the girl she could come up and talk to him whenever he had a free moment or break.
“And so we would talk about school and other things she would like to do. It was just a joy to provide some happiness and a little bit of relief for her and also a little bit of relief for her grandmother,” he said.
When Rowland takes on the persona of Santa Claus though, he is often accompanied by his companion, Candy Ernzen, who plays Mrs. Claus, and has her own set of fans.
One year when they both appeared at Roswell Nissan, Rowland said a girl came up to him and said she was not interested in talking with him and that he could go on a coffee break. When he asked the girl why, she said she wanted to speak with Mrs. Claus, or as Roland calls her, “Mrs. Santa” instead.
“And so they just sat down and they talked and she got her picture with Mrs. Santa and she has been doing it every year,” he said.
The 2020 Christmas season is different and more distanced than usual amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the social distancing guidelines required to curb its spread.
In New Mexico, there are constraints in places on mass gatherings and the operation of many businesses in Roswell where Rowland would appear. As a result this year, he was a mall Santa in St. Angelo, Texas. But even in Texas, where the restrictions are much more lax, Rowland said the experience is different.
“With COVID, everything is hands off,” he said. Six feet of space must be maintained between the children and himself.
Instead of sitting on his lap, children who came to see him had to sit on a loveseat or on overturned flower pots which resemble gum drops, while he sits in a chair. The children were required to wear masks and Rowland himself wore white masks made by Ernzen that were designed to blend in with his beard.
He said children were allowed to remove their masks as long as they looked straight at the camera and not at him.
Rowland said that some families became upset with the new protocols that fly in the face of tradition, but he said most people understood why the precautions were taken.
“… Most everybody understands social distancing and hands off Santa,” he said.
The need for Santa
Ernzen said that with so much upheaval in people’s lives this year, Santa and Mrs. Claus are important and offer some stability in a world that this year has changed in so many ways.
Rowland said he plans to continue to represent Santa in the coming years, bring merriment to others and encourage the spirit of giving and brotherhood that Santa Claus exemplifies. And he wants to find more opportunities to appear as Santa throughout the year.
“We need somebody who is jolly and somebody who can bring happiness and not just one time of the year. That can remind us that there are reasons to be kind and considerate and loving and caring and generous to each other,” he said.
Breaking news reporter Alex Ross can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 301 or firstname.lastname@example.org.