VENTURA — Forget the sleigh. Leave the reindeer at home. This Santa prefers a Rolls-Royce.
A self-proclaimed Santa Claus from Ventura's east end donned a red suit and hat Thursday morning, climbed into his '64 Silver Cloud and cruised Ventura County looking for faces to brighten.
He found them everywhere he went.
"See those smiles?" he said, driving by a car full of waving children in a Telephone Road parking lot. "That's why I do this."
For the last 12 holiday seasons, this Santa--who keeps his identity a secret to preserve the mystique of St. Nick--has waved to his fans, handed out candy and informed parents that all their little boys and girls have been very good this year.
Wherever he goes, heads turn. With his long, white hair and beard, rosy cheeks and blue eyes that actually seem to twinkle, he draws as many double takes as smiles.
"He really looks like Santa," said Ventura resident Oscar Esmaili, grinning as he greeted Santa outside his Ventura bakery.
The beard and hair are real, and he keeps them long year-round. In fact, his tradition of touring as Santa began as a case of mistaken identity. He was standing in line at a drug store when a little boy tugged on his shirt and asked if he was Santa Claus.
Without hesitation, he said yes.
Each year since then, his ritual has become slightly more elaborate. The Rolls is now decked with bows and holly, he wears a jingle bell on his wrist and he expects to hand out 2,500 candy canes this year.
"I don't know what I'll do to top it off next year," he said.
As he pulled up to the window of a day-care center, children rushed to press their faces against the glass and wave. He sent candy canes inside with a day-care employee who had run out in the rain to deliver a collective hello from the kids.
"Make sure it's OK with their mothers," he warned as he handed her the candy. "And all the beautiful ladies get candy, too," he added, giving her a few more.
He noted, however, that he extends the same candy privileges to nice gentlemen.
Santa's wife, a.k.a. Mrs. Claus, said she looks forward to this time of year because her husband enjoys himself so much.
"He always asks, 'Do we need anything from the store?' Then he grabs his hat and he'll be gone for five or six hours," she said.
"He has the best time doing it."
After making appearances from Simi Valley to Santa Barbara, "he comes home tuckered out and happy," his wife said.
Before his days in the red, fuzzy hat, Santa was an oil-field engineer who worked throughout Canada and the United States. Now 67, the retiree has five children and seven grandchildren, none of whom live nearby.
But, when he wears his Santa suit, there is no shortage of attention from kids.
"He gave us a candy cane," 5-year-old Taylor Onhumus of Ventura proudly told his friends.
And what did Taylor ask Santa to give him for Christmas? "More candy canes," he said.
Still, according to Santa, it seems to be the grown-ups who appreciate his visits the most. His wife thinks it's the car. And actually, Santa won't tour without his wheels.
Part of the reason he keeps his real name to himself is to avoid being asked to perform at birthday parties and charity functions. It's not a professional gig. "It's always just for fun," he explained.
Ventura resident Tanya Bernard, who works in Esmaili's bakery, said the reason adults love the Rolls-Royce Santa is "he's so cool."
As she delivered a complimentary cup of coffee to his car, Bernard leaned in the window and asked, "Was I a good girl this year, Santa?"
"Well I don't know, were you?" he responded.
She said she was indeed, and got a candy cane.
"Merry Christmas!" Santa shouted, as she walked away.
"Wasn't that fun?" he added, beaming.