NORTH POLE — He doesn't play Santa Claus. He is Santa Claus, the only one in Alaska.
Before you start with the ho-ho-hos, rest assured that the name on his driver's license, passport, credit cards and Social Security card establishes his identity.
The real Santa lives in North Pole and has just been named president of the North Pole Chamber of Commerce.
Looking at him now, you would think he was born to be Santa Claus, but he was born Thomas Patrick O'Connor in Washington, D.C., 66 years ago.
He is also an Anglican monk, a former New York police official, a two-time candidate for president and a man who objects to the commercialization of Christmas. He dons the Santa suit several times a year for nonprofit groups to entertain kids, but he is just as likely to wear his monk's robes.
Claus has lived in many states and most recently spent about a decade in Nevada before moving to North Pole last May. It was in Nevada that he officially changed his name from O'Connor to Claus in 2005.
He said he was debating with himself whether a name change to Santa Claus was the right thing to do while walking to the post office and praying one cold day. As a car drove by, a young man shouted, "I love you, Santa."
O'Connor took that as the quickest answer he ever received to a prayer. He filed the legal papers and before long, Tom O'Connor was history.
"I don't answer to that at all anymore," said Claus.
The first couple of times he flew as Santa Claus, there were lots of questions from airport security, but not so much anymore, he said. Claus also said he introduced himself to both the North Pole police and Alaska State Troopers while he was out walking last summer, so they would know who he was.
Claus said he moved to North Pole in May because he figured that a North Pole ZIP code would add to his credentials and make him more effective. He said he lives just beyond city limits. He said that becoming Santa Claus helped him gain access to legislators and generate media attention that would otherwise be out of reach. There have been many news stories in recent years about his presidential campaigns.
"I use my name as sort of a mechanism for prompting state and federal officials to co-sign or sign legislation that has a positive effect on children's health, safety and welfare," he said, adding that his background in public safety work as Tom O'Connor opened his eyes to ways in which children "fall through the cracks" when adults face emergencies they cannot handle.
He ran for president in 2008 and 2012 as a write-in candidate, promoting the need for increased children's protective services, and plans to run as a write-in for Congress in 2014 against Rep. Don Young.
If nothing else, he has name recognition going for him. "Over the last eight years, there have only been one or two people who have said I was stealing Christmas from Christ," he said. "I believe that Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Christ, not the crass commercial secular stuff it's become in many places."
He said he doesn't try to project the image of Santa Claus formed by the Coca-Cola ads from the 1930s on, but the qualities of St. Nicholas.
"Love is the greatest gift one can give, not presents," he said.
He said he likes the people and the snow in North Pole and feels right at home. When he introduces himself as Santa in North Pole, where the city hall Christmas tree stays up year-round, people take it in stride.
There were several attempts in the early 1950s to make Fairbanks and the surrounding area a center for Christmas activities, which is how North Pole got its name.
Claus said he thinks there may be a dozen or so people in the U.S. who share his legal name, but he is not certain, as there is no official compilation. Sixty years ago in Alaska, a Fairbanks businessman named Robert Lee Chesser sought a name change to Santa Claus because he wanted to sell ads and Christmas letters.
Con Miller, who later made the Santa Claus House the biggest attraction in North Pole, was among those who objected to Chesser's plan. Judge Harry Pratt rejected the request, saying "There really is only one Santa Claus, and he belongs to children of all ages."