Behind The Beard
12/09/2016 11:17AM ● Published by Robert Frey
Gallery: Behind The Beard [7 Images] Click any image to expand.
A Local Pharmacist’s Double Life As Santa Claus
By Shanna Perkins
Santa Claus. Papa Noel. Saint Nick. We all know the tale of the jolly man whose belly shook like a bowl full of jelly. We can all recite the name of each reindeer that leads his sleigh. Yes, we all know his story well. He hailed from a small town in St. Landry Parish called Rosa. After graduating from pharmacy school, he settled in New Iberia and eventually opened a drugstore that became one of the cornerstones of the community.
What? Not the story you were expecting? This is the tale of Andy Soileau’s life as Santa Claus.
In 1976, Soileau had recently moved to New Iberia and joined the organizations the Jaycees. It wasn’t long after that he got roped in to the role of substitute Santa, and the rest is holiday history. His first order of business was to don the long white beard and visit the Heritage Manor South nursing home.
“My first experience as Santa was amazing,” he recalls. “The nursing home became one of my favorite places to play Santa. The senior citizens really get a boot out of it. Sometimes, I think they enjoy it more than the children do. They look forward to it each year. It’s such a rewarding and proud feeling for me when I go in the patients’ rooms and they have three or four years worth of pictures with Santa on their walls.”
Soileau recounts his brighter moments with his doting fans at the nursing home. He explains how walking into the room of a bed ridden patient and seeing their face light up was an experience that reinforces the magic and beauty of Christmastime. Santa Solieau also laughingly recalls a cheekier patient who wanted to take Santa home as her husband. “I told her I didn’t think Mrs. Claus would like that too much,” he chuckles. But, he also saw the wonder and excitement in children’s eyes.
“Years ago, one of my customers who was in the shop a lot with her children, I went to their home to play Santa,” he reflects smiling. “One of the little girls recognized my watch and she kept saying ‘Mr. Andy, Mr. Andy.’ So, the next morning before I opened the drugstore at 9 a.m., I had to call Eric Armentor to open up his store so I could go buy a new watch. By 9:05, the little girl was in my drugstore, running up to me and grabbing my wrist. When she saw that it wasn’t the same watch, she just gasped and her jaw dropped.”
But when moonlighting as Jolly old Saint Nicholas, it wasn’t only other people’s children he had to keep his identity as Mr. Andy the pharmacist a secret from. Occasionally, it was his own family. One Christmas, his wife and two step daughters attended a Christmas program, during which the two girls fell in line with all the older children to await their turn to sit on Santa’s lap and make their Christmas morning request. Much to their shock, they only learned who Santa was after their program. They never recognized his face, his suit or his voice.
For most children, growing up with Santa Claus in your family is the ultimate brush with fame. Keeping the magic of Santa alive isn’t always easy. Soileau explains to his grandchildren, who are all very leery of other Santas, that Papa, as they call him, is Santa’s special helper. And that’s all the reassurance they need to keep any speculation at bay. Soileau’s daughter Kyla describes what it’s been like to watch her own children experience the wonder of Christmas with her father.
“For the past eight years, we have been able to bring our own children and let them participate with their Papa,” Kyla says. “Seeing their reactions brings back the most wonderful memories and it brings out the inner kid in all of us. My dad is always rising above and taking action in this community. It warms my hear to call Santa’s helper my dad.”
In March of this year, Soileau lost his home to a fire. Inside were three pristinely striking Santa Claus suit. This devastating loss coupled with what he calls “a little back problem,” caused Soileau to reconsider reprising his role as Kris Kringle.
“It’s a source of sadness in my life,” he says solemnly. “My retirement from Santa Claus might be short lived, but I’m definitely on sabbatical.”
And while he may have temporarily hung up his red coat and boots, Soileau’s role as Santa for nearly 40 years has had an immeasurable impact on the community. Always present with a willing and giving spirit and a trademark jolly demeanor, Santa Soileaus became a deeply woven part of Christmas in New Iberia. Kyla reminisces about what it was like to be Santa’s daughter.
“Growing up, watching the Christmas parade was magical for me,” she gushes. “When I was younger I would think, ‘how lucky am I to be able to ride along with Santa and his helpers?’ Once I got older, I realized that my dad was the one spreading the joy and love across our community for all of the little kids, that’s when I felt so blessed and honored for my dad and our family that he could help Santa every year.”