Santa Paul poses with two fans during his visit to the 2019 World Santa Claus Congress in Japan.

Nome’s own Santa Claus travels the world

Considering the real Santa Claus is able to circumnavigate the Earth in one night with his eight reindeer it’s no surprise that Nome’s own Santa is also a world traveler. Paul Kudla recently returned from Japan where he attended the 2019 World Santa Claus Congress. It was held in Kumamoto, Japan and sponsored in part by All Nippon Airways. Kudla, aka Santa Paul, was invited to attend by the organizer, his friend and fellow Santa, Paradise Yamamoto, whom he met at a Santa festival in Norway.

Kudla has been to Norway twice for the Santa Winter Games. Over 100 Santas from around the world get together for a lot of fun. He attended a Santa festival in Kirgizsistan eight years ago. “I travel and I look like Santa,” he said. “I’m always in something Santa-ish.”

Kudla wears his beard long and white and his hair the same. He wears a gel vest to make him look like a traditional jolly Santa. ”I’ve tried the pillow thing and the stuffing. Kids know it. Gel feels like a real body. Plus I’ve got my suit on top of that.”

His recent trip to Japan was at the invitation of friend and fellow Santa Paradise Yamamoto, who not only is Santa but plays congas in a jazz band and is a renowned chef. “We were treated like royalty,” said Kudla. “One of the big sponsors of the congress was All Nippon Airways. They sponsored us and we flew down to Kumamoto where the conference was. We flew in all our Santa gear and instead of being all grouped together they spread us out throughout the plane.” Besides Santa Paul from Alaska there was one from Washington D.C., one from Canada, three from Denmark, and one each from Norway, Japan, France, Germany. “So we met the mayor of Kumamoto. You’d be very surprised where a lot of these Santas come from. I’ve actually met one from Iran. He wore what looked like red satin pajamas and a big cone all wrapped in satin. He came to the Santa Claus festival and he was Santa! You could tell right away, it’s in the heart.”

“We were in this brand new five-start hotel,” said Kudla of his Japan experience. “The whole lower section was like a shopping plaza, all indoors, and we Santas roamed around into all the stores, the Toys R Us, just visiting with all the kids and people who came around.” A big auditorium was set up with different scenes for photography with Santa. “Then we went to a TV station that had a live local talk show. Paradise did most of the talking. And we were always going out to eat, good Japanese traditional restaurants. You sit on the floor. Good friends, good food, good time.”

The next day they were off to the Kumamoto Castle, a building dating back to 1467 which was heavily damaged in the recent earthquake. “There was a traditional Buddhist wedding going on so we got to see some of that. Then we went to a big field out back, a soccer field or maybe a parade ground. They had some games set up for the kids. Hot! Oh my gosh, it was hot, maybe 75 or 80 degrees. And here I am in my Santa gear. But once I’m into that groove as Santa the heat doesn’t bother me too much.”

After the tour of the castle they did sight seeing, including a visit to the peaks surrounding a volcanic caldera. In the caldera is a beautiful valley of perfect soil and many rice fields. They stayed at the local resort and spa where the water in the pools was coming up from the volcano at over 100°F.

Back in Nome he has a different job. “I’m on call with Public Works here in town, I drive truck when I’m not at the cemetery,” said Kudla. At the cemetery he’s the caretaker. And during the Midnight Sun festivities in Nome, he’s been known to play the undertaker in the annual robbery of the bank.

Kudla’s career as a Santa is now in its 12th season. His best friend got him into it. “The first thing I did was go to the Charles Howard Santa Claus School in Michigan,” said Kudla. “It’s the oldest Santa school in the world. My first gig was doing a shopping mall in Brownsville, Texas. I did two seasons there and moved on to Houston and a couple of towns around the Los Angeles area.” Then he hooked up with Nationwide Santas, a Las Vegas business, which handles real bearded Santas. His agent works with Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s all over the country and set him up with Santa gigs in Iowa, San Antonio, Texas and Las Vegas. “My last three seasons I did down in Fort Myers, Florida,” Kudla said. And this year he’ll be Santa at Bass Pro Shop and Cabela’s in Anchorage.

His contract this season is for six weeks. He opens at Cabela’s in Anchorage on Nov. 16.

When he travels domestically to Santa gigs Kudla takes along his Afghan hound Fire.

What goes into being Santa? “Obviously it’s not the costume,” replied Kudla. “I’ve seen Santas with outlandish costumes and I’ve met Santas that just had a red bathrobe trimmed in white. It really has to come from the heart. Anybody with a white beard can put on a suit and say ‘Ho Ho Ho!’ To be a real a Santa it just comes from the heart.”

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