Aguanga man plays Santa in Watts

A blind child gently strokes Santa’s jacket at the Christmas festivities at the parish of St. Lawrence of Brindisi in Watts Saturday, Dec. 7. Courtesy photo

This time of year brings out the very best in people, especially in Michael McKinney, who has been preparing for the Christmas season for quite some time.

McKinney is Christmas personified. He grows his white whiskers into a proper Santa beard, gives to the poor and spreads good cheer and peace on earth, all while celebrating the season in a devoutly religious way.

He and his wife Claudia recently volunteered to take part in the Christmas festivities at the St. Lawrence of Brindisi Parish in Watts Saturday, Dec. 7.

“Michael plays Santa Claus for all the children,” Claudia McKinney said. “The sister parishes of St. Lawrence are kind to them and bring hundreds of toys and new bikes for the kids of South Central.”

The event was special for both the excited children and for the McKinneys, they said.

Michael McKinney brings Santa to life for children at parishes around Southern California. Courtesy photo

“At three years of age, Frankie was hit by a motorcycle and left with severe brain damage. He is now 34 and his mother takes such beautiful care of him with what little they have.” Claudia McKinney said. “When Frankie saw Santa, his eyes lit up and filled with tears, and he managed to say ‘I love you.’”

A shy blind boy was fascinated with Santa’s soft, fluffy coat, she said.

“He kept feeling the fur on Santa’s jacket and smiling,” she said.

The real meaning of Christmas happens in moments like these.

“I started to don the red suit about three years ago when I had let my beard grow out, and as a result, many children pointed or whispered and said, ‘Mama/Daddy, that’s Santa Claus!’” Michael McKinney said. “Getting older and having your beard turn white has its perks after all!”

Besides the real beard, McKinney has a perfectly fitted Santa suit and classic appearance.

“But the No. 1 requirement for being Santa isn’t the beard or the belly or even a hearty hohoho! It’s actually having the true meaning and spirit of the Christmas nativity in your heart,” he said. “That’s why I do it, to spread the joy and hope of the Christmas message – that God humbled himself and came down from heaven, not as a king but as a baby born in a poor stable, in order to reconcile mankind with God. Hope, brotherly love and forgiveness steeped in joy is what Santa represents.”

Married to his wife for 33 years, McKinney is the father of four children. Claudia McKinney is a digital artist who designs book covers for indie authors, as well as the major publishing houses. She maintains a website displaying her work at

Michael McKinney is a semi-retired former commercial vehicle dealership owner, having specialized in new and used buses sold to airport parking lot shuttle fleets, hotels, retirement homes, nursing homes, adult day healthcare centers and tour companies nationwide. He was in that line of work for nearly 20 years.

“I was invited by a close family friend, Rocky Falatico, to come dressed as Santa and pass out presents to over 300 under-privileged children in South Central Los Angeles a few years back, at the St. Lawrence of Brindisi Franciscan Capuchin-led parish,” McKinney said. “I’m a traditional Latin Mass Catholic, so it was very natural for me to go to a very poor parish and portray Santa, who is actually based on a real Saint who lived in the third century – St. Nicklaus.”

He fell right into the role of the kind old elf, carefully listening to the Christmas wishes whispered to him by the excited children, he said.

“Mrs. Claus and I used to pass out blankets and meal vouchers to the homeless near the airport in Los Angeles, but after moving out to Aguanga when I semi-retired has made that more difficult, so we try to get involved with local Catholic causes. I also have plans to visit the children’s hospital this season,” McKinney said.

Besides the trip to Watts, he visited the Cahuilla Tribal Hall celebration and a nursing home this December.

“I have to tell you that I get real joy out of seeing the children’s faces light up when the big man shows his up,” he said. “I love children and truly take the responsibility seriously. I am Santa when I put on that suit, and I actually morph as much as possible into the jolly red giant.”

Spreading joy is what McKinney is all about.

“Have a very Merry Christmas, and in the words of Tiny Tim, ‘God bless us every one!’” he said.

Diane Sieker can be reached by email at