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Alaska Life

From grave digging to sleigh riding: Nome’s Santa Paul brings Christmas spirit to all aspects of life

  • Author: Tess Williams
  • Updated: December 24, 2019
  • Published December 24, 2019

Santa Paul talks with visitors on Christmas Eve. (Anne Raup / ADN)

Santa Paul isn’t your typical Santa. He doesn’t live in the North Pole — he lives in Nome and spends his offseason digging graves at the local cemetery.

And on Christmas Eve, he doesn’t fly around the world, but he usually tries to hunker down someplace warmer and sunnier than his home state. For the last three years, that meant Florida. And before that, Santa Paul took a chance on Vegas.

But this year, the 70-year-old is sticking closer to home. He spent Christmas Eve at Cabela’s in Anchorage listening to children whisper their last-minute wishes.

“What’s the best thing you want from Santa? And remember — it comes tonight," he said in a Boston accent lingering from his childhood.

One little boy asked for a puppet set, another asked for a scooter and a little girl told Santa Paul she would really like a Power Ranger this year.

“Make sure you go to bed early tonight,” he reminded them before sending them back to their parents with candy canes in hand.

Santa Paul waves and welcomes children to talk to him on Christmas Eve. (Anne Raup / ADN)

Before he became Santa Paul, he was just Paul Kudla. He drove big trucks across the country and spent a few years living in a camper while he went exploring. He landed in Nome after falling in love with a travel nurse 16 years ago. He stayed even after she left.

“It’s the longest I’ve ever lived in one place, probably because I can’t escape since there are no roads," he joked.

About 12 years ago, his friend suggested he should try being Santa. With his long, white beard, it seemed like a natural fit. Kudla headed off to the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School in Michigan. During the three-day course he learned “the whole ‘ho ho ho,'” but also technical details about being St. Nick — like how to position your hands appropriately and the best ways to groom your beard.

After that, he got set up with an agent. Every Christmas season he flies out of Nome with his dog Fire and spends a little over a month bringing joy to the new city that he’s been assigned to. This year he worked shifts at Cabela’s and the Bass Pro Shops location in Anchorage.

Santa Paul has flown all over the globe to attend Santa conventions and competitions. The gig has taken him to Kyrgyzstan, Norway, Japan and Chile, where he toured ancient Mayan ruins. He was proclaimed “America’s best Santa” in 2015 after competing on the truTV show “Santas in the Barn,” according to Atlas Obscura. He stays in touch with a few of the other Santas he met in school, but for the most part he avoids conventions in the Lower 48.

Santa Paul hangs onto an unhappy Anistyn Durst, 1, while her sisters Paityn, 6, and Aslynn, 10, wait. The portrait was finally taken when the whole family, parents Zack and Katie Durst joined the group. (Anne Raup / ADN)

“Sometimes it’s just a bunch of fat, old guys sitting around and talking about happy things,” he said.

Back in Nome, Kudla goes by Santa Paul all the time, which means he is always on his best behavior — there’s no room for Santa on the naughty list.

“One day I was working for this friend of mine and delivering home heating oil, and I’m at the back of the truck dressed in all black, and all of a sudden I feel a tug on my pant legs and this little boy says to me, ‘Santa! I just got the training wheels off my bicycle!’ And he was so excited. Stuff like that happens all the time.”

He started working as a caretaker at Nome’s graveyard two years ago. Before that, the cemetery sat untouched for decades. Santa Paul said the grounds were overrun and neglected, but as the sole caretaker, “I really have turned the whole cemetery around now.”

But the task hasn’t come without challenges and surprises. Many of the old markers were downed and some people were buried without markers — Santa Paul learned that the hard way.

“We were digging a hole and then, ‘Well, cover it back up, better put a marker there,’” he said.

He’s found eight grave sites in the last two years that way.

Although digging graves and dressing up as Santa may seem like polar-opposite career choices, that’s not the way Santa Paul sees it.

“Becoming Santa, I think, was a gift from Spirit,” he said. “And my gift back to Him is doing the best I can at the cemetery."

Santa Paul walks with Coen Berga, 5, to the Santa chair on Tuesday. (Anne Raup / ADN)

Christmas Eve was Santa Paul’s last day taking photos with Anchorage children.

He’s still figuring out what to do in town for Christmas Day, but he’s bummed that the season is coming to a close.

“It energizes me! When I’m done and taking off the suit, it’s just like, ugh,” he said as he slumped his shoulders and sighed. “I’m starting to go through Santa withdrawals already.”