During the past few years, Nelson and Patricia Richter have become accustomed to the whispers.
It happens in grocery store aisles, at restaurants and just about everywhere in between. Children usually notice first, but adults soon catch on.
The fluffy white beard, the twinkling eyes — this man couldn’t be anyone but Santa Claus.
“Kids will walk around our table and say, ‘It’s him! It’s really him!’” Patricia Richter said. “It’s funny, because it’s kind of a yearlong thing. If we go to a restaurant in the summer, Nelson will be in shorts and a T-shirt, and still people will come up to us.”
Turns out it’s difficult for Santa to go undercover. He may be a teacher, neighbor and family man much of the year, but after all, this is the 21st century — even Santa Claus has to multi-task.
“I have to have a second job,” said Nelson, who teaches at an alternative school in Montgomery County. “This Santa thing is kind of seasonal.”
The job may be part time, but the holiday spirit is not fleeting in the Richters’ Columbia home. Patricia, 59, keeps a decorated tree in the foyer year-round, and Nelson, 62, is never far from his basement wood-carving workshop.
“I bet I’m the only person in town who has to dust their Christmas tree,” said Patricia, who works at Shelter Insurance. “But it’s worth it. People always smile when they see it.”
Once the holiday season rolls around, Nelson can be found sharing a Christmas breakfast with children at Superior Garden Center. He keeps a worn leather book filled with their names and scribbles down notations, such as “Good boys and girls.”
Along with his list of the naughty and nice, Nelson carries a rope laden with keys of various shapes and sizes. After almost 40 years of marriage, Patricia knows all of Santa’s secrets: “Sometimes he has to use keys if he can’t get in the chimney.”
Nelson may be the center of attention from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, but the season is no idle time for Patricia, either.
“Mrs. Claus makes a lot of cookies and takes care of Santa and makes sure he gets enough rest so he doesn’t get sick,” she said. “She basically just oversees everything, kind of like an office manager during the holidays.”
The week before Christmas, Patricia stays busy baking dozens of cookies, wrapping presents, filling stockings and preparing for the visits of the couple’s two daughters, four grandchildren, extended family members and long-time friends. Their home is decorated inside and out, and the smells of the season fill the air.
As the Richters can attest, the work of Mr. and Mrs. Claus is never done. But despite the late-night cookie baking, hours of decorating and year-long tree dusting, Patricia said the joy that comes into the eyes of the young — and young at heart — this time of year it all worthwhile.
“It’s the spirit of Christmas,” she said. “It’s not about anything but that.”