By Tracy Demetropolis
NEW RIVER – If you want to find the real Santa Claus this Christmas, the North Pole may not be the best place to look. Instead, try Walmart, Fry’s or Safeway stores in Anthem. If your timing is right, New River resident Jim French, aka “Christmas Jim,” may be standing outside one of these businesses handing out small toys and candy canes to every child he sees.
“Santa is a beloved person who brings joy to the world. That’s what I try to do,” French said.
French has been playing Santa Claus in New River and Anthem since he retired several years ago. The weekend after Thanksgiving French pulls out his Santa suit, hat and toy bag before heading to Anthem. While he would prefer to travel in a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer, French said a car is the most practical form of transportation in the desert.
The money to pay for the gifts comes mainly out of his own pocket, French said. Occasionally he receives cash from a friend or neighbor to help him buy even more toys and candy.
“They’re not huge toys – balls, frisbees, baseballs – but children are just so happy to get something, even if it’s small. I instinctively know what toy a child wants,” French said.
Last year, French said he handed out hundreds of toys and candy canes to children and a few adults. He plans to hand out toys and candy canes through December 25.
“I do this out of love for children,” French said. “It’s the best feeling in the world to make a child happy.”
French said that although he grew up poor, his parents never let him know it; there were always presents under the family Christmas tree.
To put parents at ease about their children accepting presents from someone they don’t know, French said he applied for and obtained an Arizona Department of Public Safety fingerprint clearance card, which teachers, real estate agents and other professionals obtain to show they do not have a criminal history.
While French said he employs one elf named Otto, he generally works alone. French’s wife, Linda, is the unofficial Mrs. Claus, but she prefers to stay out of the spotlight.
If you can’t find French in Anthem, you might be able to spot his house during a drive through New River. French said he shows continuous Christmas programs on his 70-inch television, which is visible from the street.
“Christmas is my all-time favorite holiday,” French said. “Nothing makes me happier than seeing children’s faces light up when I hand them a present.”