A Real Life Santa Story

December 23 2013, 10:00 PM

It seems like everyone at the Village Inn is staring—or trying not to—at 75-year-old Hilmar Lund. His chest-length white beard rests on a maroon flannel shirt and suspenders. He eyes a menu carefully. And he’s a doppelganger for Kris Kringle.

Lund orders the country sausage crepes and explains that he’s been “Santa,” on and off, since he was 29 (first with a fake beard and now with a real snow-white one) at corporate events, church functions, holiday nights at museums, and Hallmark stores—although never a mall because “the children don’t really get to spend time with Santa.” He can currently be found aboard the historic Georgetown Loop Railroad serving up holiday cheer with Ms. Claus, his real life companion, Thelma Sprague.

She doesn’t garner as many glances out of costume, but to see them together, it’s hard to imagine them as anything but Santa and Ms. Claus. Both smiley, warm and friendly, they met at Denver’s Redeemer Lutheran church. Both lost their spouses in the late ’70s (Lund’s wife to cancer, and Sprague’s husband during open-heart surgery). When one of Sprague’s daughters, Julie, needed a date to a father-daughter dance, she asked Lund. To thank him, Sprague had him over for dinner because “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach,” she says. Over the years, Lund became a surrogate father to Sprague’s daughters and walked them both down the aisle.

They became Mr and Ms. Claus after riding the Georgetown loop train as tourists in 2009 when Tom Hill, the train's vice president of operations, walked up to Lund and said, “I need you.” Having just launched the holiday train series the year before, Hill was on the lookout for would-be Santas. Lund took a bit of convincing but dug out his red velour suit in November when the holiday-themed trains began to run. From Thanksgiving to New Years, he and Ms. Claus can often be found handing out candy canes, jingling bells, posing for pictures, listening to Christmas wishes, and doling out morsels of wisdom. While the duo receives a small fee for their portrayal—enough to “cover gas”—their real motivation is the joy it brings them.

“For me the fun is to see the people smile,” Lund says. As for his Santa skills: “It just comes natural for me. I’ve never taken a training course. It is just self taught,” he says, with a twinkle in his eye, of course.

—Image by Kate Gibbons