Jack Carey believes in Santa Claus.
For Carey, 83, Santa exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion, more than 500 times over in his Huntington Beach home.
After his wife, Shirley, died in 2011, he needed a hobby. Santa had long been a big part of his life. He played Kris Kringle for 25 years at private Christmas parties and in a door-to-door program, wearing a professional-grade costume and a fake belly.
So he started a Santa figurine collection.
His first figure was one of the jolly old elf in a basketball jersey shooting a layup. Carey was an all-region basketball player in his youth, and his son, Jason, is a coach at Newport Harbor High School.
Then, “one thing led to another.”
He got more Santas, and he got them friends — Mrs. Claus, and nutcrackers and snowmen, and reindeer and other anthropomorphized critters ready for winter celebrations.
Figures and dolls filled his foyer, then crossed the threshold into the formal dining room, inched into the living room, flowed into the dining nook and onto the kitchen counters. They’re everywhere. They’re there year-round.
They’re on shelves, atop the piano, climbing up and down the mantle like ivy, huddled around the living room Christmas tree that never comes down. They’re plush, resin, ceramic and plastic. They wear the classic red suit, Old World robes, or are dressed as cowboys and golf players and fly fishermen.
Several are musical or animated. These ones especially tickle Carey as he presses their buttons to play tinkling music box tunes, or a jazzy “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” through a Hawaiian-shirt clad Santa with a saxophone. The groupings follow no theme, but are neatly arranged and dust-free. Every Santa, or friend, looks like it belongs exactly where it is.
It’s gently zany and unabashedly joyful, like his tradition of gag gifts (one year, everybody on his “nice” list got a stick-on mustache.)
How could it not be?
“Who hates Santa Claus?” Carey asked, the white pompon of his red stocking cap flopped to the side.
He doesn’t spend a lot of money on this habit, or his other big activity: jigsaw puzzles.
The puzzles are a callback to a family tradition to assemble one at Christmas. After he completes them he glues them together and tacks them up around the house. He figures he has snapped together 100,000 pieces over more than 600 puzzles.
The garage is his main gallery, and occasionally he opens the door and lets the neighborhood children tour the colorful cache. The puzzles and Santas are second-hand, usually in the $2 to $5 range.
They come from Savers, Goodwill, Salvation Army and Assistance League thrift shops. “They all know me there.”
He’s trying to enjoy life. He’s not here to pass time in boredom.
“In my life, I gotta lot of yesterdays, and I don’t know how many tomorrows,” he said.
Carey says his Ohio childhood looked a lot like the fictional Hohman, Ind., in “A Christmas Story” — that’s why the first puzzle in his collection was the leg lamp.
He served in the Army during the Korean War and afterward, in the 1950s, moved to Los Angeles, where he lived in a boarding house in the Wilshire district before meeting his wife and moving to Huntington Beach in 1969 to raise their three children.
Carey worked as a quality control engineer at McDonnell Douglas, a real estate broker, and a chauffeur to the rich and famous. He retired at age 80.
His adventures continue. A couple of years ago he appeared on an episode of “The Price is Right.” He’s looking forward to the Huntington Beach Pier Polar Plunge on New Year’s Day, where he hopes to repeat as the oldest person to jump into the chilly Pacific. He plans to start a new goal for 2018: read a book a week.
He has his family, a lady friend and two tabby cats, Rudy and Lucy, who only occasionally make mischief by swiping baubles off a display.
His five grandkids, ages 4 through 17, love visiting his house.