With a long white beard, twinkling blue eyes and glasses balanced on the edge of his nose, Jeff Cassidy bears a curious resemblance to Santa Claus.
For the past few years, aside from his job as the shop carpenter for the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, he’s naturally taken on the role of Santa during the holidays at the nearby Kidseum, an extension of Bowers.
Cassidy, 60, of Orange also pays visits to the Children’s Hospital of Orange County in Orange, Farmers and Merchants Bank in Orange and Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa.
For Cassidy, Christmas isn’t just a holiday celebrated on a single occasion, it’s something he carries with him throughout the year and he takes pride in his Santa role.
“To see the smiles and joy on the kids’ and parents’ faces, this is about bringing simple things back to life,” Cassidy said.
He usually starts growing his beard out in April to make sure it’s the right length, and despite pleas from his wife, Annie, that it makes him look old, Cassidy thinks he may even start earlier next year.
For each appearance, Cassidy wears an $800, tailored Santa suit that he purchased from a specialty store in Hollywood. Since he can’t duplicate the flying sleigh due to gravitational requirements, Cassidy rides to gigs on his maroon Honda Shadow motorcycle.
When he walks on the grounds of Bowers Museum, kids and adults flocked to him for photos.
“This can be a tough time of year for many people and I think [Cassidy] understands that,” said Peter Keller, president of Bowers Museum. “He seems to have made it his mission to bring the spirit of Christmas to everyone around him.
“Whether it’s volunteering at our children’s museum, our staff holiday party or at CHOC hospital, he recognizes his ability to bring a smile to the faces of both parents and children.”
Cassidy has been working at Bowers Museum for about three years as the primary carpenter, crafting various items needed to support the exhibits. When he’s not dressed in Santa garb, he’s usually wearing a tool vest speckled with dust.
The proclivity to build can be traced back to his first creation, a wooden Christmas tree that his father displayed on the roof of the Santa Ana home where he grew up.
Cassidy said his love for Christmas has been with him his entire life.
“Christmas has always been inside,” Cassidy said.
Cassidy is a member of a local chapter of the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas, an association of bearded men who dedicate themselves to the role of Santa. Cassidy said he meets with them once a year at North Woods Inn in La Mirada.
The international agency supplies Hollywood, malls and other organizations with Santas for holiday-related projects.
These Santas take their jobs seriously; some even go to Santa school, Cassidy said, pointing out that he’s learned a lot from the old-timers, like keeping extra pairs of white gloves because they tend to get dirty.
Despite the obvious joy that fuels Cassidy’s yuletide activities, for most of his life he wrestled with a painful part of his past.
Adopted as an infant and raised by the Cassidy family, he wondered why his birth mother would seemingly abandon him.
“I thought through my life that I was unwanted,” Cassidy said.
A few years ago, after some serious detective work from Annie, Cassidy was able to connect with his birth mother, Laura Mills.
Cassidy and Annie flew to Pennsylvania where Mills lived to find out why she gave up her child.
He was reluctant to hear why.
“I had always been curious but I didn’t want to open that box,” Cassidy said. “It could be a wonderful thing or a bad thing.”
Cassidy learned that his mother had been looking for him for 57 years. She’d had multiple children in a short time and had been advised to give a child up for adoption.
“It was very healing for me to find out I wasn’t rejected my entire life,” Cassidy said. “Because of other circumstances she couldn’t take care of all these kids.”
Cassidy said he was blessed to be adopted and raised by a loving family. He believes the pain he carried with him served a greater purpose in shaping his character, providing him with an empathy that comes in handy when talking with children during his Santa appearances.
Last year, an exchange with a young girl particularly resonated with him. Cassidy said he saw himself in the child.
“This child came to me and she didn’t want anything,” Cassidy said. “She turned and looked at me and her eyes welled up and she said, ‘I just want to have a happy Christmas.’