Two Harbors resident Jerry Carlson is dedicated to helping others. A native of the city who has lived in the area for over 80 years, Carlson has spent his recent years focusing on helping the community through volunteering. His most visible role? Being Santa Claus. This year will be Carlson’s 50th year as Santa and he still continues to enjoy the special job of bringing smiles to people during the Christmas season.
Apart from his time spent in the military, Carlson has lived in Two Harbors his entire life. He worked as the Lake County Assessor for 31 years. His role as Santa began in 1969. At that point, Two Harbors’ Santa was being played by a deputy sheriff, who became ill and needed someone to fill the role. Carlson stepped up, donned the iconic suit, and began what would be a decades-long role in the community.
“When I first started, Mrs. Claus and I would ride on the back of an open fire truck the day after Thanksgiving,” Carlson said. “We would then go to the Ben Franklin downtown and would see over a hundred kids who wanted to sit on Santa’s lap.”
Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Carlson would have up to 30 Santa engagements, including visits to businesses, parties and nursing homes. Being Santa requires a sense of fun and spontaneity: Carlson has sung songs with children in daycare, danced the macarena at a Christmas party, and let residents at nursing homes get their pictures taken with Santa. He has heard countless Christmas wishes and warmed the hearts of many in the community. He has even driven down to the Twin Cities as Santa for visits. (He said it’s always fun when people look over and realize Santa Claus is driving
Another important event for Santa is attending the Lutefisk Dinner at the American Legion. It is not only a tradition for Santa to attend, but for “The Lutefisk Song” to be sung for Santa every year.
While Carlson has many good memories from playing Santa over the years, one in particular stands out to him. Carlson’s wife was a special education paraprofessional in Two Harbors. Carlson went to the schools every year, but one year there was a boy in his wife’s class who had cancer. The boy, Jacob, was in and out of treatment and was not able to be in school on the day that Santa visited. It happened that Jacob’s grandfather was one of Jerry Carlson’s classmates from high school. He asked Carlson if it would be possible to visit Jacob, either at home or in the hospital, so he wouldn’t have to miss out on seeing Santa that year.
Jacob came home from the hospital two days before Christmas and they planned the perfect Santa surprise. It was night and the house was out in the country. Carlson parked on the road and quietly walked up to the house. The house had a motion-sensor light, and as Jacob was looking out the window, suddenly the light turned on and Santa appeared in the yard.
“He was so, so excited,” Carlson said. “I brought him a basketball and a toy police car, and we danced around to ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.’ Then Jacob asked me to come over. He hugged me like I had never been hugged before and said, ‘I love you, Santa.’ I told him that Santa loved him, too.”
Jacob died the following summer, and Carlson is thankful that he could be part of making that Christmas as special as it could be. The memory, he said, will always stand out as the best in 50 years as Santa.
While many of Santa’s engagements are private events, one event where Santa makes a public appearance is the Rotary Club’s Light Up the Park event in Thomas Owens Park. Carlson said that last year he saw 65 kids at the event, and that it’s a great way for families to get together and enjoy the holiday season.
In addition to being Santa, Carlson spends his time volunteering for Community Partners, where he is a driver for seniors who need to get to appointments. As a people-person who has worked a lot with the elderly, Carlson said that volunteer driving is something he has always wanted to do.
“Volunteering is a two-way street,” Carlson said. “My whole outlook on life changed when I started volunteering. It’s so gratifying to pick someone up from an appointment and hear they have a clean bill of health or to have a child in the hospital excited to see Santa. You can’t put a price on that.”