For 55 years, Bill Lane has played Santa Claus: first for Christmas parties at Sunset magazine, where he was publisher, and since 1990 (when the family sold Sunset) at the Ladera shopping center on Alpine Road.
For Sunset parties, he arrived by horseback, buggy, police car, a huge four-door Lincoln convertible, and even a helicopter with Stan Hiller at the controls.
"But, It's always by fire engine at Ladera," says Mr. Lane, retired publisher of Sunset magazine and a key member of a group whose work led to the incorporation of the town of Portola Valley in 1964.
At the Ladera Country Shopper, located at 3130 Alpine Road, Mr. Lane plays Santa for hundreds of children and their families, usually on the second Saturday in December.
This year, Santa stepped down from the Woodside Fire Protection District's spic-and-span engine Dec. 13 and held court on a bench outside the Konditorei cafe for more than two hours. With kind words and gentle advice, Santa greeted the children.
While waiting to perch on Santa's lap, children were planting bulbs outside Ladera Gift and Garden Center, making frames for their Santa photos at the frame shop, taking a turn at swatting pinatas at Amigos Grill, and watching the balloon artist create animals and fanciful shapes.
As Santa listened intently and talked with the children, photographer Susan Thomas of Portola Valley took pictures. (Some 400 of the photos are now posted in the windows of the Konditorei.)
People often wonder why the busy Bill Lane decided to lead a double life as Santa during the Christmas season. Here's his answer:
When Sunset moved from San Francisco to its new Cliff May- designed headquarters in Menlo Park in 1952, he suggested his father, publisher Laurence W. Lane Sr., host a Christmas party for children of Sunset staffers.
"But who would be Santa?" responded his father, who quickly declined the ho-ho role. Young Bill thought about searching for a Santa, but decided finally he would play Santa himself. He rented a suit and used a pillow to fill out his tummy, he recalls.
"It turned out that I really loved being Santa," says Bill Lane. "I love relating to kids and hearing what they have to say."
He listens to their wishes, checks their lists, and also gives some gentle advice. "Santa Claus watches very closely to see what you do," he tells them. "Do you help around the house? Your parents do a lot for you, what do you do for them? Oh, that's wonderful."
Santa also reminds them: "We live in a beautiful country, and we have to take care of it. When you're out on a trail, hiking or just walking down the street, if you see trash, you should pick it up."
The children are "all excited about their gift list," says Santa during an interview in his Portola Valley home. "An amazing number of them want iPods or iPhones."
Being a wise man, Santa tells them he will try to bring the things they want, but he can't promise. So many children want the same thing.
"I personally have always enjoyed playing Santa," he says, "but this year especially I got a lot of satisfaction from helping kids, and usually a parent or two, be happy together and forgetting any personal economic problems or troubles around the world."