A Chat with Bill Swank about Santa Claus & his book, Christmas in San Diego

Santa Swank visits with a boy at the Speckles Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park (photo courtesy Balboa Park Conservancy)

As readers of the paper know Bill Swank has a column in the paper called “Squaremont”.  What many may not know is he is a retired probation officer, a devout fan of baseball and an author of ten books, mostly about baseball.

With the holiday season approaching I thought I would sit and have a chat with Bill about becoming a Santa and his book Christmas in San Diego. 

CO: How does one become a Santa?  Is it your beard? Is it your body? Were you ever a mall Santa?

BS: I didn’t know I’d end up looking the way I do. My beard turned white and I don’t count calories. I was actually discovered almost 20 years ago loading my plate at HomeTown Buffet. A little Mexican girl hugged my leg and said, “I love you, Santa.” She melted my heart.

I had previously been approached to become a professional Santa and a mall Santa, but that held no interest for me. It even seemed un-Santalike. In 2002, I was asked to be a volunteer Santa in Balboa Park. I had taken my kids to see the religious Christmas scenes when they were young and thought it was a good way to give something back to the community. I finally agreed to wear the red suit.

CO: Why a book about Christmas in San Diego?

BS: Over some beers, Jeff Ruetsche, my editor at Arcadia Publishing, said, “You’ve done two San Diego baseball books for us and you’re San Diego’s Santa Claus. You should do a book about Christmas in San Diego.”

CO: How did you approach writing the book?

BS: Being a baseball historian, I tried to cover all the bases. The book is divided into five chapters… the history of Christmas in San Diego, the distinctly San Diego Christmas traditions, the various ways Christmas is celebrated within the many communities of San Diego County, unique San Diego Christmas trees and, lastly, some very special San Diego Santas.

Christmas in San Diego by Bill Swank (photo courtesy Arcadia Publishing Company)

CO: In your research are there any books written about Christmas in San Diego?

BS: I’m not aware of any others.

CO: When I think of the Christmas season in San Diego, I think of people taking pictures at the beach and sending them to others in colder climates.  I think of the Hotel Del decorated and festive.  Riding around neighborhoods checking out Christmas light displays.  How about you? What does Christmas mean to you?

BS: You mention neighborhood Christmas light displays. As a matter of fact, Clairemont Christmas Park, by Madison High School, is one of the best in San Diego County.

Since becoming Santa, Christmas has taken on a new dimension for me. I have no training for the role. I just try to be the Santa I wish my kids could have visited when they were young. I’m a loud, laughing, jolly Santa. I try to make kids feel special. Making kids and their families happy gives me great pleasure.

CO: Did you dedicate your book to someone who made Christmas special to you?

BS: The book is dedicated to all the volunteers throughout San Diego county who bring joy to others at Christmas. If the stories and photographs in my book don’t get you in the Christmas spirit, you’ve got a serious Grinch problem requiring immediate medical attention!

CO: How about a little sneak peek into the book? What can you share with us?

BS: Who knew a baby named Salvador was born near Borrego Springs on Christmas Eve 1775 while Captain Juan Bautista de Anza was leading a group of 240 settlers and soldiers to Monterey or that future California governor Pio Pico was arrested in Old Town for portraying the devil in the traditional Spanish Christmas morality play, La Pastorela?

In 19th Century San Diego, the biggest baseball game of the year was played on Christmas Day.

Did you know that in 1925, Santa’s biplane landed in the sand at Mission Beach and he was immediately surrounded by bathing beauties?

The San Diego Gay Men’s Chorus produces a beloved Christmas program every year. The hit of their Nutcracker Suite is a large man in a small tutu dancing as The Sugar Plum Fairy.

The first real-bearded Santa in San Diego was probably Gabe Bradford who first appeared at the Clairemont Square in 1978 and continued his genuine and gentle interest in talking with Clairemont kids for over 30 years.

CO: How can people buy a copy of your book?

BS: If you would like a copy of my book for $20, send an e-mail to Bill@ClairemontTimes.com

CO: Will you be making any appearances this year as Santa Claus?

I will be lighting the Community Christmas Tree at the Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park at 6:30 PM on Saturday, December 1, 2018. Come and have your picture taken with me and buy a copy of Christmas in San Diego.

I will return to the Organ Pavilion from 5:00 to 8:00 PM for “December Nights in the Park” on December 7 and 8, 2018.

I’ve really cut back on being Santa for several charitable organizations. I’m getting to be an old man! My wife liked it when I taped a note by our phone that says, “Say ‘No’ to Santa requests.”

Walt Andersen and I are old friends. We recently celebrated our 60th reunion from Mission Bay High School. What started in 2008 as a small get-together for family, friends and staff has grown to a two-hour event with a professional photographer. I will be at Walter Anderson Nursery in the Midway District on December 15, 2018 from 11:00 AM TO 1:00 PM.

Merry Christmas to all. Ho! Ho! Ho!