Barre Family Featured in HBO Max Documentary 'Santa Camp' | Film | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Barre Family Featured in HBO Max Documentary 'Santa Camp'

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Published November 16, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated November 22, 2022 at 5:59 p.m.


From left: Rose Ciappara-Williams, Fin Ciappara and Suki Ciappara outside their home in Barre - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • From left: Rose Ciappara-Williams, Fin Ciappara and Suki Ciappara outside their home in Barre

For a person who likes to travel by sleigh, Fin Ciappara lives in the right place: a house in a hilly neighborhood in Barre where a sled would pick up speed with ease on a snowy eve. The porch is adorned with a red-and-white striped pole and a sign that reads "North Pole." At the front door, the welcome mat is decorated with a picture of Santa Claus and printed with the word "Believe."

Inside the house on a recent morning, Fin announced his fondness for Santa by wearing a red-and-green vest covered with the word "ho," as in "Ho ho ho." His sister, Rose, wore a white Santa T-shirt, and his mother, Suki, was dressed in sparkly red.

Fin, 32, was born with a rare form of spina bifida, Suki said. He is nonverbal but for about two dozen words and phrases — "Ho ho ho" is a favorite. He communicates with the assistance of iPad app Dialogue AAC, which generates speech from typed text. Fin used the device to tell Seven Days the story of wearing a Santa suit to greet children at a daycare center. He gave a big thumbs-up to describe the kids' delight.

"Being Santa is important because it makes people happy," Fin said. "I want to be a real Santa because I love Christmas."

Fin's fascination with and interest in being Santa are depicted in the new HBO Max documentary Santa Camp, to be released on Thursday, November 17. The movie was filmed at Santa Camp in Greenfield, N.H., an annual summer event that's organized by the New England Santa Society. At the rural gathering of Santas, Mrs. Clauses and elves, participants commune about their roles, learn the tricks of the trade and anticipate the season.

Fin is featured in the movie along with two other camp members who don't fit the Santa stereotype of a roly-poly older white man with a long white beard. Chris Kennedy is a Black Santa from Arkansas, and Levi Truax is a transgender Santa from Chicago. The documentary depicts their experiences at the camp, which Fin attended with Suki, aka Mama Claus, for three days in summer 2021.

Dan Greenleaf, or Santa Dan, is cofounder of the New England Santa Society. He told Seven Days by email that it was "fantastic" to have Fin at Santa Camp. "His enthusiasm and dedication to becoming Santa was obvious to all," he wrote. Beyond that, Fin's participation was beneficial to the camp community, according to Greenleaf. "Most of us relish the opportunity to meet with children and adults with disabilities," he wrote. "And we are continually trying to learn more on how best to interact with them. Being with Fin and his mother, Suki, ... gave us all a better understanding and appreciation."

Santa Camp also follows its subjects to their hometowns the next winter, when they are Santa in their communities.

For Fin, that meant appearing as Santa at the annual A River of Light festival in Waterbury. In a scene at the end of the movie, Santa Fin rides in a sleigh in the parade, waving to a cheering crowd — as he learned to do at camp — as snowflakes fall on Main Street.

"It was magical," Rose, 29, said.

Fin said he hopes the movie helps people understand that it's important to be "nice to people who are different." The documentary also carries another message, he said: "Believe in your dreams. Don't give up."

Guided by Suki, Fin and his family have lived by those words for more than 30 years. Suki, 67, is an art teacher and artist who works primarily in textiles. She studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology and Parsons School of Design, both in New York City, where she worked as a costume designer and maker. As a young woman, she was a crew member on yachts and a costumer with Brattleboro-based Monteverdi Artists Collaborative.

Suki is also an advocate for people with disabilities. She began her advocacy with Fin's 1990 birth in England, where his father is from. When doctors advised her to minimize her expectations for her son, she decided otherwise.

"That's not how I roll," Suki said.

The family moved to the States, where Fin underwent successful brain surgery at age 2 and a half at Boston Children's Hospital.

Suki was pregnant with Rose at the time of Fin's surgery. His younger sister has been a "developmental motivator, a guide, an inspiration" to Fin since she was a baby, Suki said.

When Rose started to walk, Fin stood up. Over time, he learned to walk, developing his skills with great determination and years of physical therapy.

"When Finbar wants to do something, he gets the job done," Suki said. (Finbar is his formal name; he goes by Fin.)

Rose remembers riding on the back of Fin's electric wheelchair on the way to Union Elementary School in Montpelier, which they both attended. Fin graduated from Montpelier High School.

"I'm known as Fin's sister," Rose said. A fashion and web designer who lives in Wales, Rose traveled to Vermont to visit family and attended last weekend's Santa Camp premiere in New York City.

Fin and Rose always loved Christmas. Fin's interest in Santa intensified about a decade ago, echoing his childhood fascinations with Spider-Man and Superman. One day at Halloween time in a local costume shop with family friend Miriam Bernardo, Fin saw a Santa costume. He waved at it and pointed to himself. Bernardo told Suki about Fin's desire for the costume; the next day, Suki bought it for him.

It's one of numerous Santa-related activities and endeavors that Suki has pursued for Fin. Her efforts include sewing a big cushiony belly for him to wear under his Santa suit, booking Santa gigs for him at the Berlin Mall and arranging for him to hand out presents to kids at daycare. She bought him a red silk suit with a pale paisley print for the Santa Camp premiere. "It was like a fairy tale," Suki said of the NYC event. She'll roll out a red carpet at the Savoy Theater in Montpelier on December 9 for a special, private hometown screening of the documentary. Suki is planning a little parade before showtime.

Bernardo, a singer who lives in East Montpelier, worked with Fin one-on-one after school for a decade. She picked him up at school, helped him with homework and assisted with other aspects of his care. She suggested that the documentary is meaningful in the context of Fin's many Santa experiences and the effort required to make them happen.

"What the movie really means to the family is that Suki provided a dream come true for Finbar," Bernardo said. "It's a good testament to some real hard work and love."

About six years ago, Fin decided he wanted to go to Santa school to become a certified Santa. Suki contacted six such schools around the country and got a "no" from all but one: the International University of Santa Claus, held in Philadelphia in 2017. A framed diploma, dated June 11 of that year, hangs in Fin's Santa-themed bedroom. It certifies that Santa Fin completed classes and training in "SantaClausology."

Suki attended Santa school with Fin and said it was a touching experience. The 15 or so participants, like Fin, felt a calling to be Santa, she said.

"There was an element of magic to their stories," Suki said. "Every single person had some sort of epiphany when they were Santa."

Listening to Santa stories and participating in school activities had a similar effect on her.

"I realized that I was being called to do it, as well," Suki said. "It was not just Finbar's dream, but it became mine, too."

Suki is creating a curriculum designed for people with disabilities who want to be Santa. She intends to complete it in time for Santa Camp in 2023. She's also doing her usual seasonal hustle of booking Santa gigs for Fin at the Berlin Mall, the Village Grocery in Waitsfield and other local spots.

Suki said her hope is that the movie will inspire people who have a disability and want to become Santa.

Fin, a jolly and friendly Santa, offered a cheer for aspiring Santas: "Ho ho ho!"

Santa Camp is on HBO Max starting on Thursday, November 17. Learn more at santafin.com and sukiciappara.com.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Santa Fin Is Coming to Town"