Joe Maragioglio was on his coffee break outside of Roche Bros. in Downtown Crossing Wednesday when he looked up at the side of the Macy’s building and did a double-take.
There, on a ledge, was a burly man in a harness and jeans, sporting a long, white beard and pearly white hair. He was setting up the Christmas tree for the department store’s annual holiday ceremony .
Maragioglio, a union laborer, immediately thought the man bore an uncanny resemblance to Santa Claus, protruding belly and all. The scene, he said, was amusing.
“If I got that picture on Facebook, I’d get a lot of comments,” said Maragioglio. “Everyone would be like, ‘Awesome! Construction-working Santa!’”
As it turns out, it is Santa Claus — he’s just working a little overtime.
The worker with the rosy cheeks and wide grin who helped deliver the tree to Downtown Crossing this week — and who is tasked with trimming it and making sure it looks fresh for holiday revelers — is also the neighborhood’s star attraction for the Christmas season.
“I’ve got to feed my elves!,” said Bill Schaaf, who has been playing Santa Claus for the Downtown Boston Business Improvement District for the past five years. He’s also been setting up the tree downtown with Interstate Rental Service for at least fifteen.
“They’re making all [the kids’] toys and everything, so I’ve got to feed them,” he said. “I’ve got to keep working while they’re working.”
Schaaf, an Ohio native who lives in Jamaica Plain, said becoming the person who both delivers the tree and entertains spectators and shoppers was a complete coincidence.
Five years ago, while he was cleaning up equipment after the annual Macy’s holiday event, Schaaf was approached by Mike Testa, marketplace and pedestrian zone operations manager for the Downtown Boston BID.
“I met him at one of the tree lightings and this guy was great, and I said, ‘Next year, we will put you in [as Santa] for a couple dates and see what you can do,’” said Testa. “Now he parks his sleigh on the roof and comes down on Saturdays and Sundays for me. ...This guy loves being Santa Claus, and the beard is great.”
From late November through Christmas, Schaaf, 59, rides the Orange Line into town — decked out in Santa gear — and poses for photographs with children outside of Macy’s on the weekends.
This year, he’ll be lighting the tree at the Macy’s holiday event with Mayor Marty Walsh, an honor bestowed upon Schaaf for the very first time.
“I’m excited,” he said. “I can’t wait. I told a bunch of my friends up in JP and they said, ‘We’re all coming down to the lighting this year!’”
On Nov. 23, the day of the tree-lighting ceremony, a family-friendly attraction that draws hundreds of people downtown, Schaaf will drive in a tractor-trailer carrying a load of barricades.
He’ll help set them up along Summer Street, assemble the stage for the musical performances, and then park the trailer on Boston Common. After that, he’ll change out of his work uniform, slip into his red suit, and spread holiday cheer.
Following the event, when everyone heads home, Schaaf will get back into his work outfit, de-construct the stage and barricades, and call it a night.
“I’ve got a lot of duties that day,” he said.
As Schaaf took a quick break from tending the Christmas tree Wednesday, people walking past grinned at the sight of his beard.
Le Hopkins, who was enjoying a bite to eat near Macy’s, looked up and thought: “Hey, he looks like Santa.”
“[Santa is] creating our tree,” Hopkins said, laughing. “Like, ‘Hey, I’m going to help out today!’”
But Schaaf doesn’t mind the stares. It’s all part of the job.
“I love it,” he said. “As long as I can see a smile on someone’s face, that’s all I need.”