BETHLEHEM, Pa. — The Christmas City will soon be losing a holiday legend.
Christkindlmarkt’s long-running St. Nicholas — whose real name is Charles “Bud” Berge — is in hospice care, his family said Tuesday.
Berge, 80, of Bethlehem, has been Christkindlmarkt’s lone St. Nicholas since the festival debuted in 1993.
His dying wish has been to hear from the thousands of area residents who have gotten their picture with him as St. Nicholas over the last 22 years. The public outpouring has been overwhelming, daughter Pamela Gray said.
“It’s been incredible that he’s had so many people stop by, call him, send him photos all because of their connection to St. Nicholas,” she said. “It’s been nonstop support.”
Berge was diagnosed with cancer three years ago and has been in hospice care for the past three weeks at Moravian Village, Gray said. While he hasn’t felt like eating or drinking in recent days, the many visits from fans and friends have buoyed his spirit, Gray said.
“He keeps saying he’s at peace and he’s ready, but apparently his body is as strong as his soul, and he almost gets these bursts of energy when someone calls or comes in,” she said.
One of those calls came from Jill Seyfried Frack. Frack, 32, volunteered for 10 years as a Christkindlmarkt elf and considers Berge a dear friend.
“He’s been sick on and off, and people didn’t realize that,” she said of Christkindlmarkt visitors in recent years. “Every year he swore, ‘I’m going to get better just to do that.’ He lived to do that.”
Berge, a former town crier and head of the Citizens Christmas City Committee, came highly recommended when ArtsQuest was looking for a St. Nicholas for its German Christmas village, ArtsQuest Senior Vice President of Programming Patrick Brogan said. He more than lived up to his endorsement, he said.
“He’s just such a charming and sweet and caring and gentle person, and it comes through when he’s in character as St. Nick,” Brogan said.
“He’s really embodied St. Nicholas to probably two generations of Christmas City visitors and Christkindlmarkt visitors,” he said. “Whoever follows that will have big shoes to fill, certainly.”
Bethlehem resident Sarah Lambert said she couldn’t imagine Christkindlmarkt without Berge.
“I’ve been to Chriskindlmarkt every year and he is the face for me,” she said.
Her children, 10 and 5, also are huge Berge fans.
“He’s just always so friendly and so welcoming - there’s something special about him,” she said. “He’s much less intimidating than some of the mall guys.”
Berge’s family had an idea of how much he meant to the community because they would regularly visit him at Christkindlmarkt, Gray said. They would be impressed how much time he would spend with each visitor, including many adults who had visited him since they were children.
“He would ask about their basketball team and I’d be like, ‘How would he remember that?’ But he would spend that extra time with each person,” Gray said. “That was his personality to begin with, he was a listener ... this just gave him a forum.”
Berge, in a 2010 interview with lehighvalleylive.com, said he loved dressing up as St. Nicholas and even didn’t mind making children cry on occasion.
“I have to be able to take rejection, but I don’t take it as rejection, I just love all the kids,” he said. “I blow them a kiss and tell them I love them when they leave.”
Berge even once helped in a proposal. The man had preplanned it, giving Berge a ring to hold before he and his girlfriend went up for a photo.
“I asked him what he would like and he said, ‘If Kelly would be mine for years to come,’ and I said, ‘Maybe I can help you,’ and I had a ring,” Berge said. “You should have heard the screams.”
Lehigh Valley With Love blogger George Wacker wrote a story about Berge’s dying wish to hear from local residents. He received dozens of photographs of people with Berge, which Dan’s Camera City turned into a photo book for free. Wacker plans to give Berge the book Wednesday.
“He’s so charming — you find a lot of pictures in there of kids whispering to him,” Wacker said. “It would be a shame to have all these photos go to waste if he can’t see them.”