In 1897, Frank P. Church, editor of the now defunct New York Sun, wrote an editorial in response to a little girl who wondered if Santa Claus truly existed. “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” Church wrote.
But for those who may still be skeptical about the existence of the jolly old elf, a few moments of talking with Saco’s John Anagnostis might do the trick when it comes to believing in magic, mystery and the value of a child-like awe. After all, Anagnostis is a man who once shared a leisurely cup of coffee with the President of the United States.
Besides a career dedicated to teaching high school students, Anagnostis, 73, has loads of experience when it comes time each year to fill some very big shoes — not to mention a very big red suit. During the last four years, he has played the part of Santa Claus in his hometown’s annual holiday parade. It is a role he has cherished since he first donned a fake white beard nearly 50 years ago in Virginia.
Born and raised in Saco, John Anagnostis was the first member of his family to attend high school. His parents were immigrants. His father, Efstratio, came to the United States from Mytelini Island in Greece. His mother, Katherine, was born in Asia Minor (Turkey).
Efstratio, whose first name was changed to Sam at Ellis Island, settled in Saco and took a job at the Pepperell mills. Sam eventually went into business for himself, opening a hot dog stand before he decided to open the Olympia Fruit Store on Main Street, which stood at the location of the park that is now adjacent to Vic & Whit’s.
After graduating from Thornton Academy in 1948, John attended Gorham State Teacher’s College and graduated from what is now the University of Southern Maine in 1952. One month later, he was drafted into the U.S. Army during the Korean War. After the war, John began teaching in Yorktown, Virginia. But when his father became seriously ill, John took a teaching job in Massachussets so that he could be closer to his family.
Anagnostis spent the next 28 years feeling fulfilled by teaching English at Kennebunk High School — but tragedy was just around the corner for the man who always said he would do nothing unless he could have a good time doing it. In 1986, his wife, Jean, died and John’s bright and happy world fell apart. He went into a deep depression and seriously considered suicide. If not for the love and encouragement of his three children — Kate and twins, Sam and John, Jr. and a new friend, now his second wife, Dolly — Anagnostis says he may have never recovered.
But he did recover and some 16 years later says he is the luckiest man he knows. Even his dreams have a way of coming true — sort of.
We caught up with Anagnostis at his Summer Street home. Nearly two weeks before Christmas, John’s home seems to have undergone a transformation — becoming an extensively decorated shrine dedicated to the magic of Christmas. Santa hats can be found in every room — hanging on picture frames, draped near Nativity sets and adorning doorknobs.
John, who describes himself as an eternal optimist, greets us at the door with his trademark smile and a bow tie wrapped around his neck.
Three years ago, you had coffee with the president at Walker’s Point. Are you close with President George Bush, Sr.?
(Laughs) “I don’t think you could say that we’re close, but I have always admired the man and that all started with a dream I had.”
Tell us about the dream.
“Well, I had this dream in which the president’s helicopter landed out here, right in my backyard. The president came in, and I offered him coffee. We ended up chatting, and I kept calling him Mr. President.
“In my dream, he told me to stop calling him Mr. President. ‘Just call me George,’ he said. (Laughs) So I told this dream to a friend who said if I wanted, he could arrange a meeting with the president. So there I was — at Walker’s Point one Saturday morning. We had a cup of coffee and talked about all sorts of things. It was incredible.”
How does the president take his coffee?
“He took his black. I had cream and sugar.” (Laughs) “While we were talking, his son Jeb called. I could hear him on the phone with the governor of Florida and he told him, “No your mother is not here, she’s in Georgia. No, not the state, the country.’” (Laughs)
Some people say there is no Santa Claus. What do you think?
(Frowns) “I think that’s ridiculous. As far as I’m concerned it’s the spirit of Santa Claus that counts. When I play Santa, I am making real what is a myth. Mythology answers questions in reality for people who need answers to abstract things.
“When you become educated, then the myths become nice stories, but the messages are still there and that is the value of the myth. The message of Santa is the spirit of giving. Heck, I’m Greek. I should know something about mythology and St. Nicholas.
“St. Nicholas — a real person, by the way — gave coins and gifts to people who were poor and homeless. The whole thing has changed a lot since then, but that’s how it started.”
How did you end up playing Santa Claus in Saco’s parade?
“I belong to the Saco Bay Rotary Club. They asked me to do it. They provided the outfit and it fit. I love children. I have so much fun with it.”
What do you get from playing Santa?
“You get an entirely different perspective of children. When you become Santa, the children hold you in awe. You know, Santa Claus is in your heart. This is the season when Jesus was born, and if you don’t believe that, you have a lot left to learn.”
Any favorite memories of being Santa?
“When I was living in Virginia, I played Santa Claus in Williamsburg. Once, I had this little boy who was blind come and sit on my lap. His mother told me to let him touch my face. ‘He will be listening and touching you to understand who Santa is,’ she told me. So I asked the boy, ‘Do you know anything about Santa Claus?’
“He told me, ‘I know that I’m sitting in his lap right now.’ Another time — when Betsy Wetsy dolls were the rage — a little girl sat on my lap. She didn’t ask for any toys. She just wanted things for her mommy and daddy. That’s the return you get for playing Santa.”
Do you feel let down on Dec. 26, when you have to pack up the suit until next year?
(Frowns) “Oh, yes. It’s kind of sad. I take the suit to the cleaners — oh geez — another year has gone by.”
You say that your life has been one great experience after another.
“It’s so true. I’m very lucky. I loved every day at Thornton. Every day was a new opportunity to learn something. I was the first kid in my family to go to high school and I was the president of my junior class.
“In college I was elected as the mayor of the campus. Even when I was in the service I was lucky. I got to meet the King and Queen of Greece and I shook Harry Truman’s hand. What extraordinary experiences.”
But life hasn’t always been easy.
“No, it hasn’t but I have always gotten through it. When Jean died, I couldn’t see the point in going on, but that’s when I met Dolly. I have fantastic friends, an amazing family and I was raised by magnificent people. My parents were salt of the earth people.
“At my father’s funeral, so many people came up to me and said how he had made such a positive difference in their lives. When my dad died, every store on Main Street closed. He was the greatest teacher I ever had. He taught by example, and he treated everyone with respect.”
The city of Saco and so many others mourned John’s passing on October 24, 2010. He was 80 years old.