When Jack Marshall first donned the white gloves to spread Christmas cheer, the year was 1978. The hot gift was the Atari 2600 video game console that retailed for $199, what would be upward of $750 in today’s dollars.
The holidays have never been about the toys or overwhelming commercialism for Marshall, who’s celebrating nearly four decades playing Santa Claus this year. When so many parents feel the burden of trying to put a smile on their kid’s face, Marshall just wants to spread unconditional love.
He gives that gift to children and in return, their love carries him through the year. He explained the draw of the red suit while “santa-ing” at the Christmas senior lunch at the Douglas Senior Center.
“You have to almost be there when those little children come in with the absolute love that they emanate, it grabs your heart. For years, 39 actually, that has captured me,” Marshall said.
Starting as Santa
Marshall began working as Santa Claus in Ketchikan in 1978. Raised in Oregon, he moved to Alaska to work for the U.S. Forest Service that year.
He learned the importance of his role right away. In one of those early years, a young boy from the nearby village of Metlakatla greeted Santa at a meet and greet in Ketchikan. The village had brought a group of children over for the day for the visit.
Marshall did the usual routine: the boy sat on his lap and told him what he wanted for Christmas. Marshall listened and gave him a candy cane.
The boy stood up off Marshall’s lap and walked a few steps into the crowd of waiting children. He then turned back to Marshall.
“Don’t forget me this time, Santa Claus,” the boy said before disappearing in the crowd.
The moment has stuck with him and is a reminder of why he does what he does.
“I often wonder what happened to that little boy. That really grabbed me,” Marshall said.
A few years later, a fuelless boat was towed to a public dock in Ketchikan around Christmas time. The boat had a large family on board. Eight kids, Marshall remembered, and the parents didn’t have any money.
So Marshall set up donation box at his USFS office. It netted about $300, and “lots of gifts,” he said. They piled the gifts in a van and took the money to a local supermarket, where they loaded the van up with food, toys and candy. Then, they went to the dock and began stacking the donations up around the boat.
“We stacked them up alongside the boat. They didn’t know they were there. We knocked on the boat and the lady came out and just cried. There was enough there to cover all their needs. That was really the beginning,” Marshall said.
Marshall moved to Juneau in 1984 after taking a job with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He continued his santa-ing — yes, it’s verb to him — in the capital city, taking jobs over the years with every senior center in town, both malls, the Juneau Kennel Club and various private groups.
Marshall has always been able to grow the long white beard required of a dedicated Santa. It’s a distinction that makes him think he was born for the job.
He has his daughter, a hairdresser, shave the beard off after Christmas every year. It then regrows, without trimming, into a perfectly round, white beard with a tinge of blond at the bottom.
The follicle talent and grandfatherly air he’s earned in old age combine to produce an authentic presentation of Old St. Nick. Now 74, Jack has six grandchildren and one great-grandchild. He and his wife Judy Marshall raised five kids in Juneau.
One of the longest-standing gigs Marshall has had as Santa was as a performer in the Grumsickle, a local ballet production put on by Janice D. Holst’s school of dance. He played Santa in that production for 25 years. He even took ballet for seven years at the University of Alaska Southeast to perfect his performance.
He trained hard for the performances.
“It’s really hard to do ballet in a heavy Santa suit. You’re already heavy but with the suit, it adds probably 20 pounds. You try to go up on your toes but you can’t do it like the ladies,” Marshall said.
Retiring? Not yet
Marshall will play Santa for at least another year when he’ll hit his 40th anniversary. His current Santa schedule is a little pared down compared to years past.
He says he won’t hang the suit up after next year but may dial back to just one or two events. When Judy and Jack hit their 50th anniversary in 2019, his Santa routine may change yet again.
He’s not yet sure when it will all be over. It’s a little hard to think about, he said, because he feels like playing Santa is something he was born to do.
A young girl jumped into Santa’s arms at the senior lunch.
“Hi Santa, merry Christmas!” she shouted.
“Ho ho ho!” Marshall returned, the girl wrapping her arms around him.
It’s almost like a drug, Marshall said. He wishes people shared that kind of love year around. It would go a long way.
“It’s a wonderful feeling,” Marshall said. “They talk about peace and world peace, but if people understood what that really means, the kind of love that emanates through Santa every year, they wouldn’t have any trouble at all in the world. It’s just something that soaks into you.”