Theme park puts Santa in spotlight
At Santa’s Village in Jefferson, N.H., heart takes precedence over facial hair.
“We do have Santas here [who] have the fake beards,” says Christian Gainer, third-generation co-owner of the amusement park. “Our philosophy—and it’s pretty much a cornerstone of our family values—is that when children go to visit Santa, it’s not about Santa, it’s about the children.
“It’s not about the beard, it’s about the heart. And we have the most wonderful, heartfelt Santas you can find.”
Christian’s grandparents, Normand and Ceclie Dubois, opened Santa’s Village on Memorial Day weekend in 1953—two years before Disneyland debuted. The couple, who had been in the dry cleaning and tailoring business, bought a wooded lot in the mountains of New Hampshire and pursued their dream of building a place where families could spend time together.
Back then, few would have thought to celebrate all things Christmas during the summer.
“It’s Santa’s summer home,” says non-family manager Jim Miller with a laugh. Miller acknowledges that the concept may be “a little unusual,” but adds, “People love to hear Christmas carols, believe it not, in the warm weather.”
Twenty-two years ago, the family began opening the park around the winter holidays. Though the usual season is Memorial Day to Columbus Day, Santa’s Village is also open for five days in November and seven in December, including New Year’s Eve.
In the ’70s, the park was handed down to the second generation, Elaine Gainer and her husband, Mike, and Elaine’s brother, Paul Dubois. The Gainer family has run the business since Paul’s death in a car accident in the early ’90s.
Christian Gainer, 40, and his sister Melanie Staley, 44, along with Melanie’s husband, Michael, are now co-owners with Elaine and Mike. Each family member can interchangeably do any job in the park, though marketing is reserved for Miller.
Christian says he and his siblings grew up at the park. (A second sister, Susan, lives in Seattle and is not currently involved in the business.)
“It’s where we hung out, more of a home for us, really,” Christian says. “Home and a playground, and we had free range to go around the park. It was just normal for us—it didn’t seem out of the ordinary because we were around all the time.” When they were old enough, the kids started doing odd jobs around Santa’s Village.
Christian, who attended college in Boston, became a financial planner and worked in the city for a couple of years, but knew he would come back to the family business someday.
He still lives in Massachusetts and has a “day job” but spends a great deal of time at the park as well, particularly during the busy summer season.
The park now spans 15 acres and features 21 rides, nine food stands and seven gift shops. There are also 30 reindeer and a water park. But don’t expect to see Santa in his swim trunks any time soon. It seems he’s too busy to take a dip.
What you will see is the fourth generation pitching in. Melanie’s eldest son, Owen Staley, 16, now works at the park during the summer and on weekends in the spring and fall.
“One of the successes of ours as a family business, I think, is there is no forcing; there are no expectations that the next generation will take over the business,” Christian says. “First and foremost, we want them to be happy, and there is a lot of family pride here.
“For the fourth generation, it’s not ‘You’ll do this or do that.’ It’s a fun environment that’s creative, where you can hustle, watch progress and put smiles on people’s faces. They know [owning and running the park] is not an extravagant life, but a comfortable one.”
Christian says he’s thought about playing Santa in the future.
“I kind of look a little like Kris Kringle,” he says. “I haven’t gained enough weight yet.” Someday, though, he’d like to bring much joy to young visitors as today’s Santas do.
“I’d like to be in that position some day,” Christian says. “If the next generation takes over, I want to be in that chair.”
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