Joe Mandoky as Santa

La Crescenta resident Joe Mandoky dresses up every year as Santa and hands out golden dollars to people who say they believe in Santa Claus. Photographed on Monday, December 23, 2013. (Roger Wilson / Staff Photographer / December 24, 2013)

After impersonating Santa Claus at a senior care facility in Glendale last week, Joe Mandoky was still dressed in his red hat topped with a holly leaf, red velour suit and golden bells jingling at his waist when he went to pick up mail at the Verdugo City Post Office.

The 10 customers in line got such a kick out of seeing Santa grab letters from a P.O. Box, that Mandoky decided to do his traditional Christmastime routine. He pulled out golden dollars from a red sack and asked each person in the post office if they believed in Santa. Those who said yes, got a coin, those who didn’t, missed out.

Mandoky has been dressing up as Santa Claus for more than 15 years and has been giving out golden dollars to those who believe in Father Christmas for nearly as long, a gimmick that’s transformed into a meaningful reminder for recipients to give.

At first, it was hard to find a bank that had golden dollars, but then he discovered one that would sell him 1,000 golden dollars at a time. Mandoky, a real estate broker, estimates that he gives out about 500 golden dollars each December.

One year, he gave out silver dollars, but they didn’t have the same impact because some children thought they were quarters. He has also seen kids get confused when they find out the golden coins aren’t chocolate ones wrapped in gold foil.

When someone says they don’t believe in Santa, Mandoky always asks if their doubt is due to religious reasons. If that’s the case, he asks them if they believe in the spirit of giving, caring and sharing.

“They almost always say, ‘Yes’ and I give them a golden dollar,” he said. “It has nothing to do with if you believe in the actual person or not. It’s just knowing that there’s [someone] out there that’s giving and caring.”

Some recipients save the golden dollars as a reminder to be kind to other people; others because the coins make them smile, he said.

Mandoky volunteers to dress up as Santa Claus for some local nonprofits, such as the after-school program at the Salvation Army in Glendale, but he also gets paid to go to some events.

There are times when he may not be dressed up for a Christmas event, but the 68-year-old still looks so much like Kris Kringle — because of his thin reading glasses, full cheeks and long white beard — that passersby often want his picture, including a 3-year-old girl who spotted him at the Americana at Brand last week and started yelling, “Santa! Santa! Santa!”

“For 11 months out of the year people think I’m a homeless person. For a month, I’m a famous person,” Mandoky said with a hearty laugh.

Mandoky always shaves his beard the day after Christmas and lets it grow for the rest of the year so by Christmastime, it’s up to snuff. One year, a child told him he didn’t think Santa Claus was real because he had seen so many impersonators with fake beards. Mandoky invited the boy to give his beard a tug to test if it was real.

“After that, he thought Santa was real,” Mandoky said. “Every year, there’s one kid that moves me more than the last. There’s always one that gets me in the heart.”

For Mandoky, who was born in Germany to a family of Hungarian refugees, Christmas was never an elaborate affair. His family didn’t have money for presents, but he remembers them helping those even less-fortunate than themselves.

“I believe serving others is the rent we pay to live on this planet,” said Mandoky, who also has a Facebook profile under the name Santa Josef, which has more than 1,800 friends.

In addition to dressing up as St. Nick, Mandoky also carries a 12-foot-high wooden cross on wheels as part of his Christian ministry through La Crescenta. He used to do it every other week, but he has cut back because it’s getting harder for him to walk the hilly streets.

When he feels like it, he’ll also don a badge that reads: “Free hugs. Just ask me.” More people come up to him asking for a squeeze than one would think, he said.

“Very few of us have an opportunity to make very big changes,” Mandoky said. “The things we do that seem small to us can make a big difference in someone’s life.”

Mandoky changed one child’s feelings about the holidays earlier this month.

He was at church choir practice when a 10-year-old, who he had given golden dollars to in the past, told him he didn’t believe in Santa Claus because his mother said he didn’t exist. Mandoky got on the mother’s case about it and by the next Sunday, the boy came up to him at church and said, “I believe.”

“It was like, I got one. I got one for Santa Claus,” Mandoky said, adding that the boy didn’t ask for a golden dollar. “He doesn’t do it for money anymore. He got what it’s about.”


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Follow Brittany Levine on Google+ and on Twitter: @brittanylevine.

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