Champion man took cheer to children, adults in Europe
When Fred Kraft of Champion put in his 20 years of service and retired in 1999, he didn't know the military still had a special mission for him.
“I had a friend who asked if I wanted to play Santa,” Kraft said. “She thought I would be a good one.”
Kraft wasn't sure about the idea, but because his friend knew him as outgoing and he already had a beard, he decided to at least see for himself what she saw in him.
“I bought a hat, picked it up, put it on and Santa Fred was born,” Kraft said.
Kraft used a Santa suit provided by the Air Force and spent his first year playing Santa Claus where he was stationed at the Aviano Air Base in Italy, taking part in a tree-lighting ceremony and parties at the base.
From that point, he was hooked.
“After that, I wanted to see if I could do better,” Kraft said. He dyed his beard whiter for the next year and purchased his own Santa suit. He started his own Christmas tradition.
“Each year, I buy something new,” said Kraft.
Kraft continued his passion as an “Overseas Santa” for the Air Force. Then, in 2008, another branch of the military took notice and enlisted him.
“I was doing both Army and Air Force in Vicenza, Italy,” Kraft said. “It was the same job, just a different location and going to different posts.”
Kraft started to gain a certain reputation in and around the bases.
As Santa, he would put on a regular red jacket and red hat and go to the Italian stores and malls, even though the Italian people's version of Christmas legends is different from Americans'.
First there's La Befana, a witch who rides into town on a donkey to deliver presents to children and the second is Babbo Natale, which is the closest version to the Santa Claus that Americans are familiar with.
“I always carried candy canes and the kids would come up to me and yell, ‘Babbo Natale!' ‘Babbo Natale!',” Kraft said. Adults would turn their heads to see Kraft. “I guess Santa gives better gifts.”
Of his special memories from being in Italy, the one Kraft holds dearest to his heart is arriving as Santa Claus to a special-needs home.
“After the third year I went to the home, they put a collage together and a DVD set up with music and pictures of me with the kids,” Kraft said. “It made me cry. I was very touched by it.”
Kraft continued to be an Overseas Santa until an injury in 2011 caused him to hang up his red hat and coat — until he returned to the states as a Santa for Hire.
“Every year I try to do at least four or five things minimum,” he said. He still suits up as Santa Claus for events around his home in Champion as well as Connellsville, Mt. Pleasant and Vandergrift.
Kraft, 52, said he will continue to spread Christmas cheer as long as he can because the greatest reward he receives has not changed whether it be in Italy or in Pennsylvania.
“Watching the kids' faces, the belief and the magic of it,” Kraft said. “That's the big thing.”
And although many children have sat on his lap and asked what they wanted for Christmas, Kraft has a wish for this season.
“I wish everyone would get along more is all I ask,” he said. “They lose the spirit of the season.”
Mark Hofmann is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-626-3539 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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