In Santa we trust
Saint Nicholas. Kris Kringle. Pelznickel. Papa Noel. Father Christmas. Santa Claus.
For more than 40 years, Chuck Karnehm ’89 — an education graduate who received a master's from UD in 1991 and retired as a second grade teacher — has been living a double life. He is the jolly fat man who goes by many names in the red suit with fur trim, a long white beard and fondness for cookies and milk.
“It was truly a very special time in my life,” Karnehm said.
Through his years volunteering as a professional Santa Claus, Karnehm has had to reveal his "secret identity" to those close to him, including his grandchildren. He recently published a book, Grandpa Jack and the Legend of Santa’s Helpers, chronicling his story of how he told his grandson all about Santa.
In 2015, Karnehm and his wife, Jane Baumer Karnehm ’84, welcomed their daughter Lindsey and her husband into their home for several weeks after the sale of the couple's house. Lindsey’s three children, Bella, Jack and Lilly, also moved in. The middle child Jack, who was in second grade at the time, started to have questions about the "big guy" as the holidays approached.
“We worried about Jack because during Christmas time, I'm in and out of the house dressed as Santa Claus all the time,” he said. “So, we didn't want to ruin it for Jack.”
His wife and daughter helped Karnehm decide how he was going to explain to Jack why Jack might see his grandpa around the house dressed as Santa.
“I said, ‘Hey Jack, I got some errands to run, you want to go with me?’” Karnehm said. Along the way, he told Jack that Grandpa was one of the helpers that Santa has across the world.
“His eyes were as big as saucers, and I almost had to reach over and close his mouth a few times,” Karnehm laughed. “The real kicker was, my wife had set up my Santa suit in the closet of our bedroom, so as I brought Jack back into the house, it was hanging there displayed with the big boots on the ground beneath it. It was an amazing moment.”
“His eyes were as big as saucers, and I almost had to reach over and close his mouth a few times.”
The story began to grow throughout the family, Karnehm said, and his children, including daughter and fellow UD graduate Kathryn Karnehm Hamlin ’00, began encouraging him to get the story down on paper in the form of a children’s book.
Karnehm’s journey of playing Santa began in the late 1970s when he purchased an authentic Santa suit from a local department store to dress up for his co-workers at a Christmas party his company was hosting. He said that one event was what started an annual tradition.
“It just caught on that I played Santa Claus, and people would ask me to go to a party or whatever,” he said.
For the next 13 years he volunteered on behalf of Santa with the local police department in Troy, Ohio, which went around with him dressed in red to area elementary schools to hand out candy canes to young students around the holidays. Then, he was asked to help out Santa for the city of Troy, and that lasted for another 29 years.
“Each year, I would light the tree in the center of town, and they have a Santa house that I would spend time talking to all the local kids,” Karnehm said.
It was those several years of playing Santa and the look he saw in his grandson’s eyes that fateful day that motivated him to write the book, Karnehm said.
“To this day, (Jack) still talks about when we went out and he found out about the story of Santa Claus,” he said. “Hopefully he will remember that story for a long time.”