Ask any of the countless adults and children who’ve met him: You won't find a kinder, more giving -- and beloved -- Santa Claus than Joe Sarnoski of Lyndhurst.
For decades now, Sarnoski has made a minimum of 40 appearances a season as Santa, often visiting ailing or disabled children in hospitals and at their homes.
For many, the retired Lyndhurst police captain is the face of Christmas.
That's why friends and loved ones got so riled over a local newspaper story that used a photo of him for a story that claimed New Jerseyans hate the Yuletide.
Daughter Michele Sarnoski, who teaches English at Paramus High School, first spotted the online pic last Wednesday of her dad waving to children from atop a fire truck.
“She thought the story was about the Wallington Christmas parade, cause that’s where it was taken,” her father told Daily Voice.
Instead, the photo accompanied a story by a local newspaper about a poll by an Internet service provider that ranked New Jersey 47th out of the 50 states in Christmas spirit.
The company reached its "analytical" conclusions by combining the number of Google searches for Christmas movies and gingerbread houses, tweets about Christmas and Christmas tree farms per capita, among other data.
Sarnoski, who now works as security officer at Lyndhurst High School, was asleep when his daughter called to tell her parents about the story.
“Mrs. Claus” – also named Michele -- told her husband about it Thursday morning.
Those who know Sarnoski wouldn’t be surprised by his response: “Well, what can you do?”
Those who know him weren't settling, however.
"His love for Christmas and spirit of giving is so big it could fill the state of NJ," wrote photographer Carolyne Rao. "It cannot be measured in Google searches or dollars but smiles and hope. Isn't that what Christmas is about?
"No article could convince me that NJ hates Christmas...not while [Joe] lives here."
Sarnoski's wife immediately reached out to the newspaper reporter, asking him to replace the shot with something else.
“The photo eventually got taken off the online story,” Sarnoski said. “But it already was shared on Facebook and in other places.”
The reporter emailed Mrs. Sarnoski, saying he’d removed the photo. He closed with “Sorry, Santa.”
As far as anyone knew, the issue was settled.
That was until Sarnoski got a call from a friend over the weekend: The Wallington parade photo was published in the Sunday paper along with the “Jersey hates Christmas” story from days earlier.
Joe Sarnoski was a volunteer firefighter when he began visiting schools as Santa wearing a glued-on beard more than 35 years ago.
“By the end of Christmas, my face was red as a beet from that glue,” he said.
Sarnoski retired from the police department in 2009 after 32 years on the job.
“At that point, I could grow my beard out,” he said.
It wasn’t difficult: Sarnoski started going gray in his 30s before his hair turned white.
Now 69, he makes the rounds with as much verve as ever.
This year it began the day after Thanksgiving in Denville, where an appearance at a Christmas tree lighting brought donations for Sarnoski’s beloved Special Olympics (he’s been heavily involved with the program nearly 25 years).
There’s also been the Emerson tree lighting, Wallington’s parade and a visit to Tomorrow’s Children’s Hospital at Hackensack University Medical Center, among others.
With nearly two dozen visits down, Sarnoski has 15 or so to go before Christmas Eve.
Sarnoski was headed for an overnight in Albany, where he’ll see children and young adults with complex medical needs at St. Margaret's Center, a nursing facility. He was also visiting a special needs recreational program in Lyndhurst.
Then there’s the open house he and his wife have each year for kids from their neighborhood -- with milk, cookies, selfies and more. The elder Michele Sarnoski dresses as Mrs. Claus and their daughter as an elf.
As if that weren’t enough, “Santa Sarnoski” also does Facetime with children in other states. He’ll also drop in on disabled or ailing youngsters “even if I only have an hour.”
“I’m very busy,” Sarnoski said with a hearty laugh. “I like it that way.”
The photo incident “didn't bother me as much as it did other people,” he said. “They don't think it was fair.
“The one thing that did bother me is what they said about Christmas. It’s just not true.”
Look no further than the man himself.
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