Russ Wise: Santa in the River Parishes

Published 12:26 pm Wednesday, November 22, 2023

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Over 20 years ago, Russ Wise, who had never grown a beard before, grew one out for the first time in preparation for a role in a biblical play put on by his church choir. Little did he know, this would lead to his name forever being associated with Santa Claus.

“I went to the Sheriff’s department and back then, a fellow by the name of Za Maurin, who is a good friend of mine now, was their public relations person. I ran into him as I walked down the hall and he said, direct quote, oh, look, here comes Santa and I said something bright like, ho ho, ho,” Wise said. “He said, no, you don’t understand. We have a red suit and need someone to wear it. And so that started me as Santa Claus.”

Wise is known as an active community member in St. John the Baptist Parish. Most recently, Wise ran for election to the Louisiana House of Representatives to represent District 57. However, whenever Wise is brought up in conversation, one particular title always comes up: Santa Claus.

Over the past two decades, Santa has been everywhere in the River Parishes, following a tight and seemingly impossible schedule befitting of the man that delivers presents to children around the world in one night.

“I have, I think, seven Santa suits,” Wise said. “I never charge a fee for it, so that makes me really popular, I’m sure.”

According to Wise, his endeavors as Santa are not driven by profit, but instead by a love for what he does.

“It’s fun. That is the easiest answer I can give you,” Wise said. “It’s just absolutely delightful.”

Santa, as a rule, does not visit businesses, instead opting to visit schools, hospitals, nursing homes and the veterans home, to name a few. However, this year, Wise is making an exception in the name of what he considers a good cause.

Natalie Tatje of Tatje Insurance and Financial Products and Stephen Flynn of Riverlands Surveying Company reached out to Wise regarding an opportunity to allow families to get photos with Santa, and Wise agreed.

“Two local businesses are just kind of throwing photo opportunities with Santa open to the general public. There’s going to be a small fee attached, but the fee will go in both cases to a group called Friends of the Library, and I’m also president of that, by the way,” Wise said.

According to Wise, part of the reason he accepted was to allow anyone and everyone to get photos with Santa.

“People will be literally able to come from any place and get pictures with Santa, which I think is a great thing because, you know, when you go to a school or to a hospital or to a nursing home, it’s kind of closed,” Wise said.

Santa will also appear at the same events he attends annually, including the ever-popular Santa Paws Pictures photo opportunity at the St. Charles Animal Shelter.

“The very first Saturday of December is reserved for the St. Charles Animal Shelter. Santa has gone down there for 10 or 15 years now on the first Saturday of every month, and he takes pictures with dogs and cats and the occasional snake and, you know, just all kinds of whatever pets people bring in,” Wise said.

According to Wise, this event has been so popular that the animal shelter has had to set up a system to make reservations. In the past, people would line up outside the building to have their pets take a photo with Santa.

“Part of the reason that this is so successful is because it’s done early in December. People literally turn them into Christmas cards, that Santa is holding the pet, whatever the pet is,” Wise said. “They do it early in December, and that way there’s enough time to get your Christmas cards in May. And I think that’s kind of cool.”

Santa has also appeared as a guest on WWL radio for over 10 years on Christmas Eve, taking calls from kids.

“They tell Santa what they want for Christmas,” Wise said. “Now I’m on with the current host who is Newell Normand, the former sheriff of Jefferson Parish.”

Since Christmas Eve falls on a Sunday this year, the show has been scheduled to take place on the Friday before Christmas from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

According to Wise, he is grateful that the election happened when it did, having spent most of his time during election season pounding the pavement for his campaign.

“I’ve been doing my darndest, rain and shine, to visit all of these places because I honestly believe that it’s a matter of respect.I can’t ask people to vote for me if they don’t know who I am, and so I literally try to spend several hours a day knocking on doors in various neighborhoods and introducing myself to people and asking obviously for their vote,” Wise said. “It’s a good thing because a lot of people want to know where I stand on various things, and I’m happy to answer their questions. And that’s part of why I do this.”

Wise lost to opponent Sylvia Taylor in the Nov. 18 election, but his schedule in the coming weeks is dedicated to bringing holiday cheer to the River Parishes.

“I wouldn’t have time in December to do both of these things. And I’ll tell you frankly, that Santa would take precedence if there were ever a conflict,” Wise said. “Santa would much rather be visiting with kids or visiting a hospital than knocking on people’s doors and asking for votes for an election.”