Milford's 'Santa Rick' has been creating smiles for 35 years

MILFORD — Rick George was 40 years old and working as an animal control officer in the city when he discovered his true calling. Now, 35 years later, George has become a Milford institution known to a generation as "Santa Rick."

"We were looking for a creative way to raise funds for the dog park, and we came up with pet photos with Santa," George said. "We took photographs of the pets with kids. It was a huge success for two or three years until everybody caught on to it and started doing it themselves. But I put the suit on and never took it off."

The choice of George to play Santa wasn't exactly a no-brainer, he said.

"Back in those days, I didn't look like Santa," he said. "I had the artificial white beard, and the animal commission bought me my first suit."

For the past eight years, George has headlined the city's annual tree-lighting, but most of the time George can be found all over the area putting in appearances for various nonprofit agencies. 

"I've been a United Way of Milford member, and they represent several committees, and once you put the suit on, all of a sudden, everyone asks if I could be Santa for them," he said. "But I love doing it."

And in all those years, his appearances have been his gift to the community. Other than occasionally accepting a few dollars for gas, George has never taken payment for his appearances.

 "I didn't get into this for money-making," he said. "For me, it's about keeping the spirit alive. The look of awe in the child and adult faces keeps me going. And every year, there's something different."

One of those different years was in 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. George was determined to bring a little joy in a year where happiness was in limited supply.

"There was no way I was going to stop," he said. "There was no way I was going to disappoint the children. I was going to bring Santa to the children."

George rigged up a trailer with a drop pipe that he could pass candy canes through to children.

"Children would come up against the window, and I was on the other side, but children would still have the Santa experience and have something normal at an abnormal time of the year," he said.

As you might expect, he also has heard all kinds of requests for gifts in 35 years, all the way up to one request from a 10-year-old girl who wanted her own house.

But George, the former animal control officer, has a standard answer for any child who requests anything living - from puppies to horses, he has heard them all.

"My answer for anything living is Christmas is not the best time of the year to receive pets, and for me to even consider that I have to go down and talk to your parents," he said. "So I tell them I'll send elves to talk to their parents."

He also advises parents against giving Santa too much credit on Christmas morning.

"I tell people don't take the biggest gift you're giving your child and say it's from Santa Claus, because he'll go to school and say Santa got me a new car, and other children got a pair of socks," said George. "So it's fine to say mom and dad gave this to you, but Santa dropped off a few items."

And for those children he knows personally, like his granddaughter in second grade, George tells them Santa can't be in every place in the world, so he has hand-picked assistants.

"But, out of all of those Santas, one is the real one, but we are not allowed to tell," he said. "My thing is to keep the magic going."

George, of course, has countless stories and memories from his years as Santa - like the time he got to show off his dance moves for an adaptive ballet. That was an event where children with disabilities paired with dancers from the New Haven Ballet.

"I was asked initially to do a Santa walkon, something they had never done," he said. The next year the group asked George to get to the venue a little earlier.

"She told me she wanted me to learn lines and dance steps," he said. "So I ended up dancing with the kids and saying a few lines. It was rewarding."

George said he has no intention of retiring his suit. If anything, he is stepping up his commitment, building two traveling Santa workshops that double as photo backdrops.

"I'm always looking for creative ways to present Santa a little bit differently, something that awes the people," he said. "When they walk in here, I have the popcorn machine on, I keep the pine-scented candle going, and I have the Polar Express movie or one of the children's movies on the TV. When they walk in, I want people to revisit their childhood."