Jim Rielly was more than Bristol’s Santa Claus

Jim Rielly was more than Bristol’s Santa Claus


To the editor:
Drive around Bristol and you may notice a few things around town with the name Rielly on it.

Off of Hopeworth Avenue, you will find Rielly Lane. In Rockwell Park there is an unassuming park bench with an engraving that reads: Jim Rielly’s Bench. And near the entrance of the Bristol Town Hall, hangs a portrait of an elderly man on the Fourth of July dressed as Bristol’s Town Crier. The gentleman depicted in the painting, who appears to be welcoming each visitor to our Town Hall, is my late grandfather James D. (Jim) Rielly.

Jim Rielly was a lifelong Bristolian whose love for our town was immediately evident when you met him. In many ways he was Bristol’s unofficial Ambassador. To paraphrase Yeats: There were no strangers to Jim Rielly; only friends he had not yet met.

Jim Rielly was well known throughout Bristol and much of New England for his kindness, generosity, and countless charitable acts; but most notably, Jim Rielly was known as Rhode Island’s most famous Santa Claus.

His first appearance as Santa Claus was in the beginning of the Great Depression. In 1928 at the age of 19, Jim Rielly was Santa Claus for a family living in an abandoned chicken coup. From that day forward he would continue for the next 62 years bringing joy to children of all ages.

Throughout his Santa Claus career, Jim Rielly took no money for his appearances. He was featured in countless newspaper articles and television. In recognition of his efforts, Jim Rielly received hundreds of awards and commendations from civic and community leaders. He received letters from dignitaries, members of Congress, Presidents, and even His Holiness, Pope John Paul II.

In 1979, the United States Senate entered his name in the Congressional Record as “James D. Rielly, A Truly Remarkable Santa Claus from Rhode Island.” And on December 22, 2010, James D. Rielly was honored as one of the inaugural inductees into the prestigious International Santa Claus Hall of Fame (www.santaclaushall.com) in Santa Claus, Indiana.

My grandfather and I are featured in a documentary titled: “They Wore the Red Suit.” The film tells the story of the history of portraying Santa Claus and those rare individuals who have devoted their lives to keeping the tradition and the magic of Santa Claus alive. As a tribute to my grandfather, the producers of the film and I are hosting a private screening of the film at the Bristol Statehouse.

The event will include a discussion with Director Larry Peter on the making of the documentary and a discussion of Jim Rielly’s career as Rhode Island’s most famous Santa Claus. Refreshments will also be served.

I hope you will join us for this special private screening of “They Wore the Red Suit” as we remember Jim Rielly. Showtimes for the film are Saturday, March 9 at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. and on Sunday, March 10 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased online at: www.bristolscreening.brownpapertickets.com or you can contact me directly at 401-965-5985.

Michael J. Rielly
21 Sandy Lane