There are only so many miracles Santa can perform during the Christmas season.
Over certain matters, he is powerless.
“Santa has to go to the bathroom,” Paul Messner said sheepishly as he scooted around firefighters on his way to the lavatory at Station 51.
Messner’s been at this Santa routine for roughy 30 years on Central Whidbey, yet every year there is still giddy anticipation and stark reminders of lessons learned about human necessities.
He arrived at the station Monday night in Coupeville, beaming at the prospect of another series of chilly rides atop a lit-up, amped up fire engine from Central Whidbey Fire &Rescue affectionately known as the Santa Mobile.
The bass-blasting fire engine is a bit magical around Central Whidbey this time of year. But the brightest star onboard is the jovial man with the white beard and red suit waving white gloves.
“Paul is probably the most realistic Santa,” Lt. Jen Porter of Central Whidbey Fire said before pausing. “I mean, he is Santa.”
Convincing little ones around Coupeville otherwise would be fruitless, Porter acknowledges.
The conventional thinking among youngsters who see Messner in plain clothes around town is that this jolly man who resembles Santa at least must be in cahoots with him as one of his helpers, she said.
“The best part about Paul is he knows almost everybody,” Porter said. “Some of the coolest times are when he calls kids by name. He’ll bring out a list to them. I’ve had him say something to my own boys. The kids are like open-mouthed and shocked like ‘I can’t believe you know about that.’”
The magic rubs off on Messner as well.
It’s a joy for him to play Santa in the small town he’s called home for more than 60 years.
Aside from looks of bewilderment from children, he’s watched grown men and women be transformed before his eyes.
“No matter how old you are, you become young again,” Messner said. “There are some people who are very proper and they just turn into children when they’re around you. And the twinkle in little children’s eyes.
“It’s a lot of fun. You get the innocence of people. You see a whole different side of them.”
In recent years, Messner visited a woman stricken with cancer and gave her a candy cane. She told him she would return it to him when she saw him the following Christmas and delivered that promise.
“He enjoys the people,” said Marilyn Messner, his wife of 48 years. “He enjoys the kids. He enjoys being part of it all.
“I enjoy that he enjoys doing it.”
A fire commissioner with Central Whidbey Fire &Rescue for 31 years, Messner first got involved with the department as a volunteer firefighter. He remembers when he, former fire chief Joe Biller and others would take turns playing Santa in the early years of the Santa Mobile until the responsibility ultimately fell on him.
“Quite frankly, a lot of other people didn’t like sitting up there in the cold,” Messner said with a laugh.
Messner had an advantage: He rode a motorcycle and was accustomed to brisk conditions and knew the sort of clothing to wear underneath his Santa suit.
But what solidified Messner’s role as Central Whidbey’s resident Santa was his big heart.
It’s a heart shaped by having three daughters of his own (two of them teach in the Coupeville School District) and four grandchildren — and now a community full of other children gazing at him in wonderment.
They ask him if his beard is real. He lets them do a gentle tug if they want to confirm it.
“It’s almost like they’re in awe,” Messner said. “Their eyes twinkle when they look at you. They don’t say much. You have to pry stuff out of them.”
And Messner does. Parents often bring him their children’s lists. He’s been saving them for years, according to his wife.
“It’s special for him,” Marilyn said.
Messner, who’s 69, would like to continue filling his special niche in his community for as long as he’s able.
He’s lived in Coupeville since he was 8 and was a standout football player at Coupeville High School. He had a stint in the Navy reserves and worked on farms and on brush-clearing projects all over Coupeville, and even worked at a shingle mill in Anacortes. He would become a night custodian at Whidbey General Hospital, then for Island County before becoming the county’s facilities director until he retired.
From his makeshift sleigh atop the Santa Mobile, Messner is very familiar with the landscape below.
He grew up in a house on Ebey’s Prairie that rested where Highway 20 exists today.
The house, which still stands near Broadway, was raised and moved to the south to make way for the highway in 1967.
“My senior year, I had to move out of my house,” he said.
Although the highway changed Coupeville considerably, the town has remained fairly small and is still a wonderful place to live, Messner said.
As Santa, there’s little time to slow down these days. Aside from rides atop the Santa Mobile, there are appearances to make and photo sessions with children — all part of a packed schedule this month.
He has appearances set up at the Island County Museum from 12-3 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 10, and the PTA Winterfest at Coupeville Elementary School Dec. 17.
“It’s actually funny what the red suit does,” Messner said, recalling the time when one of his granddaughters, who’s now in college, was terrified at a young age when he dressed as Santa and wouldn’t sit on his lap.
It’s not often the effect he has on people.
Most just stare at the man and his fluffy white beard, which he said, used to be red.
“I grew it for a beard-growing contest in college,” Messner said. “None of my children have ever seen me without a beard. They’re in their 40s.”