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Santas gather in Aurora to say goodbye to ‘Polar Express’

A table full Santas Mrs. Clauses guests applaud remarks by SantJeff Curtis (top right) Orchard Valley Golf Club Saturday January

A table full of Santas, Mrs. Clauses, and guests applaud remarks by Santa Jeff Curtis (top right), at Orchard Valley Golf Club on Saturday, January 11, 2014. | Jon Cunningham/For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: February 13, 2014 6:56AM

Weeks after he hung up his red suit and Santa cap, Jack DeNormandie is still recovering from Christmas.

“The hours are grueling,” the first-time Santa, and Geneva resident, said on Saturday afternoon. But, the reward was well worth it.

“I’m still taking naps. But, I’ll tell you something to see those kids come up to me with eyes as big as silver dollars. You can’t take that away from me. It was amazing.”

DeNormandie was one of about 12 Santas that gathered on Saturday in Aurora to say goodbye to Blackberry Farm’s Polar Express.

Last year, without warning, Warner Bros., which holds a copyright to the name “Polar Express,” told about 70 Chicagoland Polar Express attractions that 2013 would be the last year they could use the name without paying a licensing fee.

So, this weekend, two dozen Santas were invited to bid the local attraction farewell.

Rain prevented the men from taking their final Polar Express trip at Blackberry Farm, but none were shy about expressing their dismay about Warner Bros. controversial decision.

“Next year, there will probably be very few Polar Express events in the Chicagoland area because of what Warner Bros. has done,” said event organizer John Sullivan.

Sullivan showed off a “lump of coal” award he intends to send to the Warner Bros. corporate offices, complete with a lump of real Pennsylvania coal.

“I am sure they will put it in a prominent place there,” he said, earning him roaring applause from the crowd.

Fox Valley Park District Public Relations Manager Jeff Long said the attraction will remain, but will be rebranded with a new name. The Park District is seeking resident input on what the former Polar Express should now be called.

“I find it very disappointing that they have taken (the Polar Express name) away from the children,” Santa Doug White of Aurora said. “What the Polar Express does for children is just wonderful.”

The event also allowed the men to reminisce about the 2013 Santa season.

For DeNormandie, the season is actually far from over. In fact, he has Christmas in July bookings already in the works.

“I can’t even shave the beard,” he said with a chuckle. “I guess it’s sort of becoming my thing.”

DeNormandie began growing his beard in March, when he decided to give the gig a whirl. He said playing Santa was a gift he wanted to give himself after the passing of his wife. It also helped him not feel so bad about the extra 50 pounds he thinks he needs to lose.

“My goal is to give every single child an emotional experience with Santa. I want them to feel and to believe,” he said. “You’ll find that everyone one of these Santas has a story to tell.”

And he was right.

White donned his first official hat five years ago after retiring from Federal Express. The delivery driver, who was often mistaken for the real deal, has been hooked ever since.

“I figured it was my calling, what I needed to do,” White said. “I love the children, and I love to see the awe and wonder in their eyes.”

Chicago-based Santa Sean Callaghan said it wasn’t he who chose the job, but that it was the job that chose him.

“I’m just a long-haired hippie whose hair turned gray,” he said. “Either I feel like a freak, or I feel like Santa.”

Callaghan chose the latter.

Others, however, seemed destined for the job.

Jeff Curtis, of Bartlett, has been posing as the big guy for 15 years. A second generation Santa (his father played St. Nick), Curtis has found a passion in his calling.

From putting together conventions (focused on hair care, beard grooming, Santa sign language, and other important workshops) to scheduling water park outings with his cohorts, Curtis has made it his mission to keep the Santas united.

“I still think my Speedo looks good on me,” Curtis said about the anticipated outing to Raging Waves in Yorkville. “But, you can wear a shirt. It’s OK. Long swim truck can actually hide a lot.”

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