A popular Santa makes Christmas Eve special for generations of Rhinelander families
BY EILEEN PERSIKE
Just like any great holiday tradition, John Nehls’ Christmas Eve custom started out with great purpose. Or not.
“I did it as a lark and just kept going back!” he said with a laugh and a twinkle in his eye.
Generations of Rhinelander families would no doubt recognize that jolly chuckle, for Nehls has played Santa Claus at Pat’s Tavern in downtown Rhinelander for 50 years. 2016 is actually his 51st year, but for health reasons, Nehls had a substitute last year.
It began in 1965. Back then, Nehls’ good friends Delore and Gracie Deau were hosting Christmas Eve parties for children and their families at the tavern.
“He had other Santas, but he asked me if I would dress up, and I said sure,” Nehls recalled. “I’ve been there ever since. I would give candy bars to the children and small bottles of spirits to the adults. They liked that.”
Pam Bronk, who owns Pat’s Tavern, along with Delore’s nephew Dennis Hooker, said it wouldn’t be the same without John Nehls.
“He hands out treats and spreads holiday cheer,” Bronk said. “Seeing him with the kids of the kids who have sat on his lap is really quite lovely.”
“Every year I would say I’m not gonna do it,” Nehls admitted. “But then they call and ask…I’m glad I did it. I’m looking forward to being there again this year.”
While it may not be as easy to get around at age 81 as it was at 31, Nehls said he’ll keep going back as long as he’s able.
“I’ve had a heckuva good time,” he said.