A Real Saint

A Real Saint

For our vacation this week, we’re traveling back to some of our favorite recent stories, starting with this cooling blast of winter warmth.

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One recent blustery afternoon, Santa came to town. He strolled along Chapel Street in a coat the color of cranberry sauce, causing small clamors of happy surprise among pedestrians going the other way. It was not unlike the appearance of a celebrity, but with the universal approachability of the red-hatted and white-bearded. Grimacing faces turned to grinning. Cell phones were whipped out for selfies. Santa gamely stopped, made small talk, strolled onward, slowed down to wave through shop windows. That he wasn’t merely seated or standing in one spot was proof of a kind of authenticity. He strolled five blocks from Howe Street to the New Haven Green, took his own selfie in front of the city Christmas tree, then walked back to his sleigh—a Kia Sorento parked in a lot near Chapel and Howe.

Earlier that day, this Santa, who goes by Tony Corso the rest of the time, had been at the Danbury Fair shopping mall, starring in a deluxe “Santa HQ” operation with a gold-painted throne and a grove of decorated firs. The prior Saturday, children had had an audience with his Santa at the First Congregational Church of Wallingford. He gently asked them what kind of cookie they would be leaving out for him on Christmas Eve. It’s the kind of question that coaxes the shyer ones out of their shyness. “Do you know what my favorite cookie is?” he asked, pausing to let one little boy ponder the infinite possibilities. “All of them.”

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The evening before that, he’d gamely posed with people’s pets in the Alvarium Beer Company’s New Britain taproom to raise money for animal shelters. “Sometimes,” Corso tells me, “I have folks show up with three dogs and they want all of those dogs to be looking at the camera at the same time while I’m holding their leashes and smiling. You have all these people squeaking toys and the dogs are running around looking for them.” Later this month, he’s set to appear at the Book Barn in Niantic.

Santa travels, through both space and time. Corso—at 6’5”, larger than life even when he isn’t in his suit—has been playing the part every holiday season for over 20 years. Many of the kids who come to see him, especially the ones who see him at church in his civilian clothes, understand that he is one of many Santas they might encounter any given December. But I spoke to one parent at the church fair whose daughter insists that Corso must be the real one.

His commitment to the role, at least, is beyond question. Annually volunteering to play Santa for holiday events at several churches, soup kitchens and halfway houses in addition to his more recent paid gigs, along the way he’s invested in better and better costumes. The one he wears now is truly bespoke. To get it, he sent his measurements to a Hollywood costume shop, which sent back a hand-sewn faux fur suit with burnished brass buttons and a wide leather belt.

But 2017 marks the point when he truly distinguished himself among the league of part-time Santas, by committing to growing a real Santa beard. “I talked to my wife—my high school sweetheart… I said, ‘Listen, I’m going to grow my beard out and I want to get permission from you, because in the middle of the night you’re going to roll over and Santa Claus is going to be laying next to you in bed.’” A real beard replaces what is often the least convincing part of a Santa costume, but it is also more approachable. “When you have the fake beard on, kids can’t see your mouth. All they can see is your eyes. I think that would be terrifying if they can’t see a person smiling all the non-verbal cues that kids would get…”

Corso had now taken to wearing Santa’s face year-round, but he had already long embodied Santa’s miraculous abundance of time and motivation. In 1987, after graduating from Southern Connecticut State University with a degree in Sociology, he was hired by Connecticut Renaissance, an organization that helps the formerly incarcerated return to their communities with life skills training and housing, among other things. “I started encountering volunteers all the time in my job,” Corso says. “And I was like, ‘These are rare, magical creatures, because they’re working with us for free. Who does that?’”

Inspired, he began volunteering in the arts, which had been a vital part of his own entry into the New Haven community when he was a young apartment-dweller in Quinnipiac Meadows. “Even when I was of age, my mom was like, ‘I don’t want you going down into the city.’ I’m like, ‘Okay,’ and I’d park my car locally… then I’d hop in my friend’s car and we’d go down to New Haven. That’s the first time I saw jazz. since turned into a coffeehouse, but before that it was a little jazz bar. And I was like, what is this?” So he volunteered with organizations that put on likewise mind-expanding shows, firstly Film Fest New Haven, which screened new films in New Haven for one weekend a year from 1996 to the mid-aughts. Later, he produced a concert series to raise money for educational programs at the Beardsley Zoo. Meanwhile, he ascended to leadership roles at local social-interest nonprofits—today he’s the director of community justice programs at the New Haven offices of The Connection Inc.—while earning a Masters degree, teaching at Quinnipiac University and moonlighting as assistant house manager at College Street Music Hall.

The pandemic brought most of this work to a halt in 2020, but by that point, his beard had grown to Santa proportions, so he signed with a company that operates a network of 1,300-plus real-bearded Santas for deployment at shopping malls nationwide. The quarantine hadn’t much diminished the demand for Santas. Visits with children in 2020 could be conducted outdoors or from 6 feet away, so Corso took some of his down-time to become a professional trained, dues-paying member of the International Brotherhood of Real-Bearded Santas. “It’s wild because you’ll check in on a Zoom call and everybody has their camera on and there’s 40 guys that look kind of like Santa.” The training covered all aspects of the work, including the performance. But particularly in the post-pandemic environment, Corso’s portrayal foregoes most of the traditional histrionics.

“Little kids who were born in 2018 or ’19 or ’20,” he explains, “are coming to see me now, and they haven’t been around a lot of people. They’re not used to the crowds and the noise when they’re coming to the mall, and they have the music blasting… So I try to be kind of quiet… I try to scrunch down to get a little bit smaller and lower, and I don’t do the big ho-ho-hos.” He lets each child decide how close he or she wants to get.

At First Congregational, he sat next to a little boy and listened with interest to an intricate description of a Transformers truck set. The little trucks connect, the boy said, to make one big Transformer. Corso was careful to signal that he knew exactly what the boy was talking about.

“I gotta study up on current toys and stuff or TV shows,” Corso says to me when the boy has left. “This year, it was Bluey. Bluey is some kind of cartoon.” Corso turns to his elf. “Kayla, what is Bluey? It’s like a little blue dog, right?”

That the real Santa—that is, the Santa in a child’s imagination—has the health and vigor to deliver millions of Blueys in one night presents a challenge to performing Santas who have aged and widened into the role but have otherwise retired. By the time the hair is really white, it can be taxing climbing into and out of the costume as well as hosting a lot of kids on your lap. (Perhaps these Santas really are saints for being able to keep up their jolliness.)

Corso, for his part, is still in his 50s, and the day of his downtown visit, on his way from one paid gig to another but somehow with time on his hands, he seems at ease. He walks a total of 10 wintery blocks in his indoor Santa jacket, meeting and greeting and merrily taking a rain check on an offer of dinner, then gets into his car to drive to Quinnipiac. He has to go administer a final exam—and he won’t be asking them what they want for Christmas.

Written by David Zukowski. Images 1-3, of Tony Corso in downtown New Haven, photographed by Dan Mims. Images 4-5, of Corso with others at First Congregational Church of Wallingford, and image 6, of Corso in downtown New Haven, photographed by David Zukowski. This story was originally published on December 14, 2022.

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