Longtime volunteer Mark Welicki couldn't participate in the Sarasota Holiday Parade this year but he has high hopes for the future.
You probably wouldn’t notice Mark Welicki on the street. Just a 60-year-old retiree who lived in Michigan all his life working as a mechanic for the city of Detroit.
But there is something there. He has a large, jolly figure; a deep, booming laugh and, sometimes, a merry twinkle in his eye.
That comes in handy in Sarasota, where Welicki is a different person altogether. Each year, Welicki travels to Sarasota to put on a bright red suit, a bushy beard, and a cheery stocking hat to become someone every child knows and loves — Santa Claus himself.
Welicki has been the volunteer Santa Claus for the Sarasota Holiday Parade for the past two decades, and he’s loved every minute of it. It’s not a job for Welicki, who doesn’t ask for money or recognition.
“(Playing Santa) is something the kids look forward to and you give them as much as you can,” Welicki said. “Something that makes them want to come back every year and say ‘Good, Santa is going to come and see me this year.’ You’ve got to give them that.”
But for the first time in 20 years, Welicki’s costume is staying in his closet. The 25th annual Sarasota Holiday Parade was canceled because of COVID-19.
His spirits have dimmed just a bit, but he’s holding out hope that things will improve.
“All you can do is hope,” Welicki said. “I'm not there to put a smile on (children’s) faces but hopefully the parents have put a smile on their faces. That's the best I can hope for.”
His time as Sarasota’s own Kris Kringle began when the Sarasota Holiday Parade’s usual Santa had to unexpectedly step down, leaving organizers in a bind. Welicki’s brother was working with the parade's organizing group at the time and, knew Mark was already volunteering as Santa at his daughter’s high school in Michigan.
He was invited down to the Suncoast to visit his brother and play Saint Nick, and it’s been holiday history in Sarasota ever since. He says it’s a fun thing to see happy families outdoors at a time when it’s colder and emptier in Michigan.
Welicki didn’t have much in the way of Christmas spirit growing up. Between his mother passing away of heart failure when he was young, his father losing a leg in an accident, and he himself living alone in a burnt out house in Detroit as a teenager, there wasn’t much cheer to go around.
He looks at his role as Santa Claus as a way of igniting in children a love for Christmas that he didn’t have growing up.
“(Anytime) I can change from my thoughts of Christmas to … somebody else’s thoughts of Christmas being Santa being there for them, and talking to them and just making them smile, it makes me feel better,” Welicki said.
Welicki covers travel costs himself, and even buys some gifts to hand out to families.
“Money is just a fleeting thing,” Welicki said. You’re going to have it or you're not going to have it. You might as well spend some of it to make someone smile. “
Welicki was blessed with a large frame and deep, bellowing laugh to begin with, and he’s practiced that laugh and Santa’s mannerisms year in and out. The energy he feels as he’s in the middle of the parade doesn’t hurt one bit either. When Welicki has been up on the truck at the end of the parade, surrounded by cheering fans and overjoyed families, he feels like a rockstar.
When Welicki got the phone call from Danny Bilyeu that the parade was off, his heart sank. He’s since taken time in the Michigan forest area to relax with his two dogs.
The only time Welicki has put on the suit this season was to surprise his grandchildren in Michigan and, to his delight, neither of them recognized him. He misses playing Father Christmas in Sarasota all the time, and the feeling he gets from making children smile.
As it stands, the Sarasota Holiday Parade is set to return on Dec. 4, 2021. Welicki doesn’t know what the future will bring with the event or the next holiday season, but he does know that if he’s ever on top of his Christmas float again, he’ll do the best he can to make families’ holidays just a little brighter.
“Santa loves to give hope to the world,” Welicki said. “That's what he loves to do.”