KAHULUI - Sure, it's easy to wear three layers of clothes, big black boots, a furry hat and a heavy suit when it's cold outside. But when you're a local Santa Claus in tropical 80-degree weather, Christmas cheer can get slightly . . . challenging.
"It gets hot," said Queen Ka'ahumanu Center's Santa Claus, Charlie Silva. "I go through three shirts every day."
Each morning after 9 a.m., Silva arrives at the Kahului mall. He gets a coffee at Starbucks, soaks in the crowd, then goes upstairs to get ready for his 10-hour shift. Shiseido sunscreen, extra undershirts and aloe vera are among the Hawaii Santa's must-haves. After all, rosy cheeks can be a sign of the season - or a sign of sunburn.
Charlie Silva waves to passersby at the Queen Ka’ahumanu Center. Minutes will go by before the Maui native, who says he’s only visited the Mainland three times and has never lived anywhere but the Valley Isle, spots someone he knows.
The Maui News / KEHAULANI CERIZO photo
Once Silva has the costume intact, he heads downstairs to his Santa photo station, a sunnier version of St. Nick's headquarters, and begins a day of Cherry Hill Photo snapshots with children in a line that sometimes snakes all the way to the street.
Gauging from his constant smile and warm demeanor, Silva can play Kriss Kringle with the best of them.
The Maui native admits that Mainland Santas in colder climates probably have it easier, but the Pukalani resident adds that there are lots of benefits to being a local Santa.
"Local families like the local Santa Claus because I can talk da kine," Silva said. "And I know a lot of people since I've lived here all my life."
Silva said he also enjoys talking with people visiting from around the world, who are happy to be away from the cold weather.
"I get to meet all sort of interesting people from Siberia, Russia, the Ukraine, Norway, Sweden, France. I meet a lot of Canadians," he said. "They come from someplace cold so they make fun of my Santa Claus."
Silva, who has a 24-year-old son and 21-year-old daughter, retired from the County of Maui parks department. Over the years, he said he spent a lot of time working with community organizations and county youth service programs. Being Santa with Cherry Hill Photos daily from Nov. 19 to Dec. 24 requires that Silva start when the mall opens and end with the last child in line when the mall closes. Silva was the mall's Santa from 1995 to 2000, and again starting last year. It's a job that Silva says comes naturally to him due to his background in community service and his knowledge of Maui residents.
"He's a good guy," said Bernadette Mansell of Makawao, who noticed Silva and stopped to say hello last week. "Who doesn't know Charlie?"
HeatherLyn Gray, Cherry Hill manager, said Silva fits the role of Santa well because he's good with kids, he looks like the real deal and he "seems to know everyone." Silva grows his pepper-colored beard out starting in April and gets it bleached before the job starts.
"He's probably the only Santa who speaks fluent pidgin," Gray added.
Silva's blue eyes sparkle when he talks about children who believe in Santa.
"People say Santa Claus was from Norway, but Santa was a 'Pordagee,'" said Silva, who's Portuguese.
"There's some kids who really believe," he added. "It's with those kids that I try to keep up the facade, so they think Santa's a cool guy."
There are, of course, skeptics.
"Some kids say, 'You're not the real Santa Claus.' I say, 'Oh? Have you ever met the real Santa Claus?' They get quiet. A lot of them yank my beard to see if it's real."
Local Santa said he asks all kids what they want for Christmas and tells them he is going to check his iPad to see if they've been good this year. He reminds them to study hard, listen to their parents and do all their chores at home.
As far as Christmas wishes go, Silva said he's heard it all.
"Asking for money is the biggest thing," he said. "I get Playstation, iPad, horses, remote-control helicopters, stuffed animals, play soldiers. Most of the stuff is basic: toys, trucks, remote-control stuff. Remote-control helicopters are big for some reason this year. I don't know if there's a movie out or something."
Silva said one young girl asked for her mom and dad to stop fighting.
"I told her I would say a little prayer and we'll see what happens," he said.
Cherry Hill Photos staff said about 50 percent of kids are agreeable when it comes to taking photos with Santa, and the other half protest. When one child cries, sometimes others start crying. It can come in waves, they said.
What scares children about the jolly Christmastime icon?
"It might be the fur" on the Santa suit, Gray said. "It might be that he's a stranger."
When kids erupt in tears, Silva said, he tries to get the parents involved and consider taking the picture with them.
"Other times I'll tell them to walk the baby backwards to me, so the baby doesn't realize who's holding it," he said. "We have about three seconds of calmness."
"What is funny is watching these adults try to make a baby smile, sometimes a half a dozen people," Silva added. "They use a wide array of gestures. It's hilarious, I can't help but crack up."
Silva said the highlight of his time as Santa occurred last year when a woman brought her 16-year-old granddaughter to get a picture with Santa. The 16-year-old girl had cerebral palsy.
"Some kids don't get to have the same kind of Christmas that other kids have," Silva said. "It took me 20 minutes to get my composure. I cried, the grandmother cried. In the next picture, I looked sad. It's not often you see a sad Santa."
Silva sees his annual role as a way to serve the community that he came from. His local version of Santa helps bring cheer to visitors and residents alike, he said.
"I like bringing well-being to people over the holiday season," he said.
"A lot of people are going through hard times because of their financial situation or domestic situation, so I like to see if I can bring some comfort and joy into their lives."
* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at email@example.com.