On a recent frosty morning, Dana Friedman was making Christmas toys in his Queens garage. He glued pom-poms and popsicle sticks to a ceramic reindeer head, which he'll later take to his office in Manhattan's financial district where he works as a personal injury lawyer.
Friedman's garage workshop is a mixture of mirth and mayhem. Stuffed teddy bears, marbles and wrapping paper fill dozens of bins and boxes. He begins making toys as early as February, and as the seasons change, the contents shift and the red ribbon bought on sale after Valentine's Day is soon joined by cheap green trinkets purchased after St. Patrick's Day.
In September, he begins to fill a wall of empty Xerox boxes at his firm, Kleinberg and Friedman, with stuffed toys and presents. Then, as early as Thanksgiving, Friedman will pack away his client files, pull on his professional Santa suit and begin deliveries to thousands of children across the city.
"I don't think I ever wanted to be a lawyer," says Friedman. "When I'm in court representing my clients, I'm definitely a lawyer first. Outside of that venue, I'm probably Santa first."
There's no denying that Friedman, 54, looks the part. "He's certainly fat enough," says his paralegal Pat Florio, who's worked with him for more than 20 years.
Friedman does have Santa-like heft: he's short and stocky. But that's not the only resemblance. There's also a tuft of snowy beard that Friedman will start sprouting into fleece six months before the holiday season. Florio also points out his apple cheeks and bulbous nose.
Often Friedman uses the likeness to his advantage in court, sprucing up his three-piece suit with a splash of red or adding Santa's round gold-framed glasses to impress judge and jury. "Is a jury going to find against Santa?" asks Friedman "I don't think so."
Friedman claims the two vocations go well together. "Acting in court is definitely part of being a lawyer," which helps him play the part of St. Nick.
Though at some point, it hardly feels like acting, he adds. As soon as he buttons his $600 embroidered suit over the 200 pounds of foam padding and cooling gel packs he has strapped on underneath, "I stop being me," he says, "And then it's all Santa."
Today, Friedman is wearing faded jeans and a white polo bearing his trademarked logo "New York Santa." At other times, Friedman's "civilian" clothes consist of a long black coat, bowler hat and walking cane.
"I kind of strive to look like the Edmund Gwynn character in the end of 'Miracle on 34th Street'," says Friedman.
But it's hard to imagine Gwynn crawling out from beneath the gull-wing doors of a silver DeLorean – Friedman's vehicle of choice - better known as the time-traveling device in the "Back to the Future" films. "And that, kids, is how Santa flies around the world in just one night," explains Friedman.
How did Friedman, who grew up in a single-child Jewish family eating Chinese food on Christmas Day, come to take on the Santa mantle?
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Friedman was driving through rush-hour traffic into Manhattan when the two jets struck the World Trade Center towers half a block from Kleinberg and Friedman. Florio was in the office at the time.
"You could just see the bodies coming out of the building," she remembers. "I can still feel the fireball on my face from just looking out the window."
In the following three months, as clean-up crews continued to clear debris and body parts from his office roof, Friedman dreamed up ways to help, wary of the numerous charitable organizations that had cropped up.
When Florio suggested that with his physique, Friedman could easily impersonate Santa, the idea "just seemed pretty obvious," says Friedman, who immediately purchased his first costume.
"They had a range from the $19 special to a high-end suit of about $600 ... We pulled out the top-of-the-line suit and I said 'OK, I'll take that one'." Friedman now owns five suits, four custom made.
His next move was setting up the "Laws for Claus" program to collect toys for the families of 9/11 victims and first responders. "This was going to be their first Christmas without loved ones or people that they knew," says Friedman. "So my goal was to go out there, do my job as Santa and get out. Who knew that 12 years later, I'd be the head of New York Santa?"
New York Santa is not a registered non-profit. Since it accepts no donations, Friedman pays expenses out of pocket and doesn't claim them as tax write-offs. But he says he'll get around to it one of these days.
When he started, Friedman had little idea what the role involved. "A Jewish kid from Brooklyn really had no foray into Santa," he says.
In 2005, he enrolled in a course at the International University of Santa Claus, an online school that teaches "Santa 101 as a business," says Friedman. Over two intensive days, he learned skills like how to talk to children and move a line along, plus basic safety issues.
Friedman's public Santa appearances eventually included department stores, hospitals, private parties and even a brief stint on the David Letterman's show.
St, Mary's Hospital in Bayside, N.Y., is always the last stop of the season. The staff there can't even remember how or when he first appeared.
"Just like Santa, he's always kind of just been there," says Leslie Johnson, a hospital spokeswoman. "All of our children are from post-acute or intensive care, and for those who have to spend Christmas here, Dana makes their stay that much more special."
Wherever Santa goes, his 11-year-old son, Sean, follows. Sean Friedman's job is to keep the adults entertained with jokes and prevent them messing with Santa's facial hair, because "more adults pull on the beard than children," says Friedman.
A sensitive boy with brown eyes and olive skin inherited from his Puerto Rican mother, Sean has been making the rounds with Santa since the second grade. He's outgrown his elf costume, so Friedman recently devised a reason for Sean to wear his own Santa suit. The character Lil' Claus, an apprentice elf that Santa will train for the next 20 to 30 years, will take over when Santa retires, explains Friedman.
Sean has assumed the role of Lil' Claus willingly, but does he want to take over his father's title one day? "For Santa maybe, but for a lawyer, no," says Sean, who wants to be a meteorologist. And what does his mother think about it all?
"My mom thinks it's a great thing," says Sean. "But she's praying for us to end this very soon."
"She's not too keen on me being Santa," says Friedman of his wife, whom he calls Pinkie. "I think she sees it as taking a lot of time away from family, which it does."
It doesn't look like Pinkie's prayers will be answered anytime soon, however. Somewhere on his desk, beneath stacks of pleadings and a pair of back-up Santa gloves, Friedman locates a 600-page manual he's been drafting called, "Who is This Kris Kringle Guy and What is He Doing in My Chimney?"
The manual presents common sense instructions for wannabe Santas: how to bleach your hair white, how to avoid Santa butt crack and how to protect your lap from leaky diapers. It also reflects Friedman's legal expertise, with an appendix containing booking agreements, contracts and a Santa film waiver sheet.
Friedman also plans to launch his own online Santa business school in the coming months. At that point, he says, he might give up the legal gig entirely and finally surrender to his inner Claus.