ST. PAUL — The year was 1987, and the lengthy reddish-blond beard that Leo Treadway sported since returning home from Vietnam showed signs of turning white.
Treadway, an AIDS activist, mental health counselor and church leader, figured it was time to don the same red suit his father wore before him — the exact same suit, in fact — and adopt the role of Santa Claus.
Over the past 30-some years, Treadway — an official member of the North Star Santas, a network of real-bearded Santas from across the state — has lived up to his father’s legacy. He’s focused on appearing at family reunions, downtown holiday celebrations and his own church, places where he could spend more time spinning tales and imparting words of wisdom to youngsters.
When his father’s Santa outfit ran its course, Treadway worked with professional designers Lynn Farrington, of Macalester College’s theater department, and Sarah Maas, known for her work with Ingebretsen’s Nordic Marketplace in Minneapolis, to custom-embroider a series of elaborate outfits. They were based on European versions of the bearded gift-giver, from St. Nicholas to Joulupukki, the ancient Yule Goat-man of Finland.
He’s one of just a handful of Santas across the state who don’t purchase their distinctive clothing off a costume rack.
The result has been a holiday side-gig worthy of the state’s historical archives, and yes, they’ve come calling.
Treadway, who is retiring from the role, recently donated multiple outfits — belts and boots and all — to the Minnesota Historical Society. The society is in the process of archiving the costume items alongside his photo albums, notes and schedules from Christmas appearances past at the Minnesota History Center near downtown St. Paul.
“In our collection, Santa mostly appears on greeting cards, ornaments, holiday-themed marketing and in historic photographs,” said Sondra Reierson, the historical society’s 3-D objects curator, in a statement. “Santa Leo’s suit is the very first in the collection. It’s especially notable because it was designed and made locally and comes with such a compelling personal Minnesota story.”
This is the second time that Treadway has donated personal effects to the historical society, which also houses photos and papers dedicated to his years of activism in LGBTQ circles.
From 1978 to 1982, Treadway served as the national co-chair for Lutherans Concerned. That led to him founding in 1982 the LGBTQ-friendly Wingspan Ministry at St. Paul-Reformation Lutheran Church in St. Paul. He also was a founding member of the national Lesbian and Gay Interfaith Alliance.
In the early 1980s, Treadway played a lead role in bringing the massive AIDS Memorial Quilt to the former Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis. Now measuring more than 1.3 million square feet, the traveling public art exhibit is composed of coffin-sized quilt pieces contributed by the families of those who have died of AIDS.
Over the course of the 1980s and early 1990s, Treadway served on three gubernatorial task forces dedicated to gay rights, as well as an HIV task force for the commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Health.
In more recent years, he’s helped fund-raise for the Twin Cities’ Southeast Asian immigrant community. In 2003, he was the chief organizer for the Dragon Boat races at Lake Phalen in St. Paul, and he’s been a longtime board member with the St. Paul-based Asian Economic Development Association.
The Pioneer Press caught up with Treadway, who lives on Selby Avenue in St. Paul, for a look back at his more than 40 years of service.
About his father, the original Santa Claus:
“He started doing Santa appearances in New Jersey right after the end of the second World War. We lived in a community right next to the county seat. The county seat had two five-and-dime stores, F.W. Woolworth’s and Kresge’s department store. My dad wore a fake beard, but it was a really expensive beard — it was yak hair. He looked more like the old, unkempt Santas that you see. It looked very authentic. It didn’t have all the clean edges that you have today.
“They would close the street that (Kresge’s) is on, so it was just packed with people, like Times Square. A military air unit would fly him in by helicopter and land him on the roof of the building. The fire company would crank a ladder up, and he’d climb down over the front of the building. It was very dramatic. You couldn’t do that anymore.
“There were far fewer Santas at that time. Today, if you take your kid to see Santa, you’re going to pass half a dozen others on the way. It’s not quite the same feeling as 60 or 70 years ago.”
About the floral embroidery, oversized gold buttons that say “Believe,” deep pockets, large cowboy belt buckle, sheep-fur-lined red stocking cap and other custom finishes for his European Santas:
“It’s a bit more like a Victorian-style Santa. It’s a little bit more formal, a lot less costumey. I wanted to look authentic and not like a costume. I wanted it to look like real clothes and have some special touches. When I get the outfit (blue Finnish vest over a white shirt with “galoshi” shoes) on, I look like a garden gnome. St. Nicholas is a totally different character.”
About the time during the recession of 2007 to 2009 when he stopped asking kids what they wanted for Christmas, because they probably wouldn’t get it, and started asking instead how they have helped others:
“I transitioned from the kind of traditional conversation that Santa has with kids, ‘Hi, how are you, what do you want for Christmas?’ … I transitioned to, ‘Tell me how you’ve helped somebody this year,’ which was a question they were totally unprepared for. For me, it was less about ‘I’ve been good’ to making them think about good things they’ve done.
“(In church settings), St. Nick is very different. I’ll gather a group of kids and tell a story about St. Nick, focusing on the theme of helping others. … I didn’t have much interest in doing malls. Most places are kind of like a cattle call. If they’ve come to see Santa, (storytelling) really presses on your time.”
How the Santa Claus tradition has changed:
“From the tradition that my dad represented to today, the whole notion of Santa has changed dramatically. It’s become more commercial in the period of time that I was doing Santa, people who see making paid appearances as a commercial venture. For example, there are professional recruiters of Santa all across the country who hold training programs on effective ways to be a Santa. Toward the end of my career, it became necessary to purchase insurance and have a background check.
“I’m not suggesting that we should return to the ‘good old days,’ because the good old days were never all that good, but some of the changes are good and some are a bit more problematic.”