Royal Oak resident Seamus ONeill has been a mall Santa Claus for five years. BTL photo: Emell Derra Adolphus

A Sit-Down With Santa

The Yuletide Is Gayer Because Of This Royal Oak Resident - And Not Because He's Gay

By Emell Derra Adolphus

A mother is God in the eyes of a child, as the popular phrase goes - but in December, she could only hope to be a close second to Kris Kringle. And it is this noel notoriety that has hooked Royal Oak resident Seamus O'Neill to his role as a mall Santa Claus for five years.

"The thing is, all of a sudden a little child has got their eyes, their eyes are big and wide and open, and they are looking at me almost like I am a really super important person," says O'Neill, 63. "And I know that they really think that (I am) Santa Claus. They're so full of love."

In his role as Santa, he hears more prayers than the pope - with children requesting Malibu Barbies, happier families and the occasional AK-47. "I kind of scolded him about it," O'Neill says, recalling the 10-year-old wise guy who inquired the firearm.

On this particular day in mid November, O'Neill isn't feeling the holiday spirit just yet. He has a roofing job to finish in Ferndale before he catches a flight to California where he'll be Santa at a mall north of San Francisco. When he's not making toys in the North Pole, he remodels homes, he explains. And that red suit? He doesn't need it to be recognized.

A wiry white beard that he maintains with bleach and long silver hair still gets the attention of children during his off season. He admits that he doesn't understand the appeal to children, but there's a sense of power when he slips into the red suit.

"I kind of felt a little special," he says about the first time he put on the suit. "It's a little different from what I usually wear," which typically includes socks with sandals and a baseball cap to cover his receding hairline. One hand's knuckles bare faint tattoos, as he reveals army type tattoos on his arm. With a potbelly, Santa could have easily been a trucker, O'Neill jokes.

"I never knew Santa Claus. Never. I grew up a very poor boy on the streets," says O'Neill.

"I didn't have a father, my mother was always working. And I ran the streets. So I never had any guidance in anything. Santa Claus, Easter Bunny, right from wrong. I had none of that."

In 1969, O'Neill was kicked out of the military for being gay. Decades later, he still questions Santa's ability to infiltrate rigid religious houses, but not sexual orientation.

"They talk about Christmas being the birth of Jesus. So why would they need a Santa Claus? I don't get it. I don't think sexuality has anything to do with being a Santa Claus. But I think there's still a lot of people (who think differently) and that's why I was hesitant to do this (interview)," says O'Neill.

"We just want to (be able to) say there's a gay guy that's a Santa Claus and it's OK for your kids to sit on his lap."

And not just kids - kids at heart, too. "Oh, I have had some grown men sitting on my lap too," he says, laughing. "I would really like a mix. Males and females, the grown-up ones. I don't discriminate. I like them all."

On average he sits with about 16,000 kids each year for photos. And he has no preparation for the season other than a few slices of cake to add to his jolly figure. O'Neill lets out a "ho ho ho."

"I can tell you this: After Christmas," he says, "I can't eat another Christmas cookie or hear another Christmas song or I'll puke."

Even Santa can only stand so much yuletide gayness.

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