While standing guard over a Christmas party at the White House, dressed in an elegant red Santa Claus suit, Jim Shea confided to a guest that he was actually a uniformed officer with the U.S. Secret Service.
“Are you carrying a weapon?” the fellow asked.
“That’s a secret,” replied Shea, “and that’s why they call us the ‘Secret Service.’” Shea was wearing a weapon, as was revealed a few weeks later by CBS News reporter Mark Knoller, who identified Shea as the “Pistol-Packing Santa of the White House.”
Now retired after 27 years of active service, Shea reflects on having protected three presidents and their families, including the Reagans, the Clintons and George H.W. Bush and his family. And because of his unique theatrical flair, Shea had many occasions to do this while dressed in a crimson suit trimmed in white, and sporting a long white beard. Shea was the “Secret Service Santa.”
A devout Irish Catholic, Shea and his wife, Linda, also love the Mormon missionaries, having invited many a companionship to live in the basement of their home in Fredericksburg, Virginia. He says that he holds the deepest respect for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the sacrifices they make in sending such wonderful young people into the world to minister.
Shea's stories from his years playing a double role at the White House are inspiring. For example, there was the time when a little boy named David had a terrible secret to confess to Santa.
"The other day I made a mistake," David told him. "Mommy made some cookies and told me not to take any of them, but I did. She sent me to my room to think about what I did wrong. But, Santa, I told her I was sorry.”
Santa replied, “Oh, David, I know that all people make mistakes sometimes; even Santa does. You can ask Mrs. Claus — she’ll tell you. Now, David, I want you always to continue to be a good boy and listen to your mommy and daddy. If you do, you will be on my 'very good list.'”
The little boy replied that he would listen so he could stay on the “very good list.”
Shea continued, “David turned to me, gave me a big hug and said, 'I love you, Santa.’”
There were many occasions when Shea got the chance to accompany first lady Hillary Clinton on visits outside the White House.
“I’m not partisan,” Shea said, “because you can’t be while serving on active duty. But I can tell you this: For eight years I went to the Children’s Hospital with her, and she was so very, very kind to those sick children. She would always bring me along dressed as Santa. I was there both to cheer up the children and to protect the first lady. One of the things I appreciated is that she let me sing at a lot of these events since I am something of a natural ham.
"One year, toward the end of their time in the White House, she said to me, ‘You know, Officer Shea, you sang really, really well this year,'" Shea said. "I thought to myself, ‘Well, does that mean I didn’t sing so well in previous years?’ But that wasn’t what she meant at all — she was just being nice to compliment me.”
Some of these outings lasted as long as 12 hours of constant activity over the course of several weeks, he said.
Shea has had several experiences with the presidents and their families, such as the time when President George H.W. Bush observed Officer Shea, dressed as Santa, dancing with the Bush grandchildren at the family Christmas party. Shea said the president came up behind him and said, “Santa, you’re the best darn Santa I’ve ever seen.”
“That was really nice of him to say,” Shea said.
On another treasured occasion, first lady Barbara Bush specifically requested that Santa Shea be the one to offer her a present from the White House staff.
The 'real' Santa
Then there was the time that Shea and President Clinton cooked up a special response to a CBS News special. It was known in advance that Shea would be standing right next to the president while in his Santa suit. Just as predicted, the commentator asked President Clinton if he was standing next to the “real” Santa Claus. Without cracking a smile, Clinton replied, “Well, I’m pretty sure he’s the real Santa Claus — after all, he made it past my Secret Service, so I think he might be the real thing!”
Shea retired before President George W. Bush took office, but he said the president and Laura Bush invited him back to the White Houe to act as Santa for a family party.
Meeting the press
Members of the press also enjoyed having that added measure of Christmas spirit. One year, a tent was set up outside the White House, and Shea, dressed as Santa, had his picture taken more than 700 times with practically everyone assigned to the White House Press Corps.
One year, Santa Shea played a role in a romance when a young military officer who worked at the White House asked for a favor. He had invited his girlfriend, his parents and her parents to take a tour of the White House to see the Christmas decorations. At precisely the right moment, he said, he would point to Santa and ask his girlfriend to go sit on his knee.
As Shea tells the story, he asked the woman, “And what do you want for Christmas?”
She was at a loss for words and said, “I’m not sure, Santa.”
“Well, then,” said the White House Santa, “it turns out I have something very, very special for you.” He then motioned for the young man to move closer and kneel by the two of them.
At this point, the soldier turned to his girlfriend and said, “I love you with all my heart, and I can’t imagine living the rest of my life without you. Will you be my wife?”
Shea, as Santa, then reached out his hand with the jewelry box. The young man opened it and took out an engagement ring.
“She began to cry and said, ‘Yes, I will marry you. You are the man of my dreams,’” Shea said. “As neither of the parents knew about the pending proposal ahead of time, they were crying too. The lobby was filled with tourists lingering at the end of the tour, so I stood up and announced, 'Santa just witnessed a young couple getting engaged. Will you please join me in congratulating them?’ and the crowd broke into applause."
Always on duty
Being Santa was fun but also serious, Shea said. As a uniformed Secret Service officer, Shea could be called on at any moment to move into protection mode. This was particularly important when he was on an outside assignment with the president or his wife. Being in disguise also gave him the chance to help look for lost children — a child was far more likely to trust Santa than to trust a stranger in a dark business suit.
One of Shea's cherished mementos from his service is a letter he received from President Ronald Reagan at the end of the president's second term, thanking the Secret Service members.
Shea is now the “Retired White House Santa,” and he says his memories of special moments while in the service of his country have enriched his life.
Jerry Borrowman is a chartered financial consultant with a master's degree in financial services. He is a best-selling author of historical fiction and a co-authored biography. His website is at jerryborrowman.com.