In late November, they begin to arrive. In malls, outside stores, at company parties across the country. A deluge of Santas. We don't often stop to wonder who the men are beneath the red stocking caps. And sometimes, Santa has a secret he wants to keep from us, too.
Producer's note: While you might be tempted to read this story instead of listening to it, we recommend listening first...and reading and perusing photos later. It's worth it, we promise.
Below a half moon on a snowbound night high on a hill in the town of Littleton New Hampshire, an large man with an overturned bucket of tangled hair stepped into the lobby of the Hampton Inn.
For the hotel's night manager, Kristen Burkholder, it was hard to tell whether it was a damaged hip or knee that made the man's limp so pronounced. Burkholder noticed the man's two front teeth were missing, that part of his right ear was gone.
"He said that he travels with a Santa Claus costume, and if we wanted him to, he'd be happy to hang out in the lobby for an hour and read stories to the kids."
There wasn't any time to make an announcement or put up signs and Burkholder still isn't sure why she finally agreed to let the strange man sit in her hotel lobby.
"I'm kind of thinking 'Oh my gosh, Santa is about to show up and this may backfire!"
The man disappeared. He dressed in crimson robes and coal black boots. He tucked his wild hair into a Santa wig and drew the white hair down to cover his damaged ear and fixed a plate into his mouth so that Santa would have front teeth. Red cap in place, he slung a bag full of toys over his shoulder and limped into the lobby.
"He sat down and all of a sudden, there was a line of kids just patiently waiting to sit on his lap and tell him what they want for Christmas."
And Santa's voice was booming.
"Come on over here, would you like to climb up here? There ya go...are you looking forward to Christmas?"
None of the children and none of their parents knew who the man in the red suit was, that once upon a time he'd been a kind of nightmare to kids all over the world - but by the time the line had cleared one of the hotel staff had figured out Santa's real identity.
"I have to get your autograph 'cause my daughter's a wrestler..."
Santa puts a shushing finger to his lips.
"What's her name?" the man in the white beard asks.
He was born Mick Foley on Long Island New York. His manifestations as Dude Love and Cactus Jack are infamous. But none are more deranged than Mankind.
It was 1996 when Mick Foley belted a Hannibal Lector mask over his face and stepped into the ring as Mankind...one of the darkest, most unhinged, most controversial - and most successful characters in professional wrestling history.
It was also 1996 when Mick Foley visited Santa's Village in Jefferson, New Hampshire.
"I was probably 16 or 17 when Mick first came to the park."
Christian Gainer runs Santa's Village with his sister and brother in law. A 3rd generation owner, Gainer's grandparents opened the park in 1953 and he grew up here.
"You know, he was a WWE superstar. He was the guy on TV. I didn't approach him at all," Gainer said.
"And from place to place all of our employees would get excited and ask him questions about wrestling Hulk Hogan and all the other big names of the WWE.
"But as his day kept on going he kept getting more and more inspired by the park...and there's been no turning back since."
Here's Foley describing it in his own words:
"I think I was able to explore that darker side because I had the yearly visits to this place. I honestly feel like that helped me copy. That I could really be convincing in my bad guy mannerisms because I had a really nice counterbalance in the joy of Christmas."
Also, in the joy of sharing it with his family.
"As a matter of fact it was on that roller coaster there, climbing the peak that my daughter, who in 1998 would have been four, kissed me on the cheek and when I asked her what it was for she said, 'Because you're a good man."
Just over 24 hours later, Foley was being thrown off a massive steel structure by the wrestler known as The Undertaker.
"Good God all mighty, they've killed him! As God as my witness, he is broken in half!" Jim Ross's iconic announcing of 1998's Hell in a Cell match has become the stuff of sports legend. (You can watch video of the match - which is not for the faint of heart - here.)
"And so after all these years one of the greatest questions I have is, what in the world was I doing at Santa's Village the day before the biggest match of my career?"
Not only the biggest match in his career, "Hell in a Cell" is considered one of the great events in WWE history and saw Mankind being thrown not once, but twice from a height of 16 feet. The first fall was highly planned and well practiced. But the second, which knocked him unconscious, was an accident.
"Good god! Good god! Will somebody stop the damn match! Enough's enough."
The injuries he sustained during "Hell in a Cell" hastened the end of his formal wrestling career in 2000.
"But yeah, I just remembered that. Kissing my cheek and telling me I was a good man."
Does that memory create any kind of conflict for Foley?
"Not a conflict," he said. "It's a great paradox. But I learned to live with it."
In 1999 during an autograph session, Foley got the sense that his days as Mankind were coming to an end and that another character, maybe his last, was preparing to emerge.
"And off in the distance about half-way thru this massive line I saw this little boy with the tell-tale scars of many surgeries for severe burns."
Foley called the boy up to the front of the line.
"His mother told me that Antonio had needed to wear a mask during the process of his healing. At the time he was 3 and like most 3 year olds wanted nothing to do with the wearing of a mask. Until his mother told him his favorite wrestler Mankind. And it kind of filled me with a sense of joy. It was almost like I could feel my conscience calling out to me," Foley said.
"And so I asked his mom if he could sit on my lap while I took care of the rest of the people in the line. And people were visibly moved, people were wiping away tears. As he walked away I got this distinct feeling that I knew what it was like to be Santa Claus and that the distinct feeling that this was something I'd like to experience again."
And so he did. After visiting Sierra Leone where he funded construction of a large primary school there which was completed in 2009.
In 2011 alone as a volunteer for the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, Foley logged more than 550 hours talking to victims. Following Hurricane Sandy, he gave his dining room furniture to a Long Island family who'd lost theirs in the storm. He then promptly invited himself over for dinner so he could eat at his old table one last time.
In 2012, it became official.
"I have an official ambassador's letter that proclaims me an official ambassador so any time I put on the red suit I am officially known as Santa Mick."
Foley was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2013. He knew exactly how he wanted to go out, exactly how he wanted to leave his fans.
"I tried to talk Mr. McMahon into allowing me to exit Madison Square Garden on a sleigh, flying into the sky. And I knew he had the capability of making it happen, he just didn't understand why it was so important to me."
And so, below a half moon on a snowbound night high on a hill in the town of Littleton, an unexpectedly large man with an overturned bucket of tangled hair stepped into the lobby of the Hampton Inn.
"And what do you want for Christmas?" The question comes again and again. This time the answer is, "Maroon catching gear!"
None of the children and none of their parents knew who the the man in the red suit was. They called him Santa and they knew inside him lay all the goodness and all the care and all the mystery and hope, inside him the single simple majesty we believe exists in the very heart of all of mankind.
Listen to these unexpected stories about the holidays by Sean Hurley:
Sean and the Christmas Tree that got away
Sean is a Grinch when he visits the Christmas Capital of New England