Ever wonder who’s behind the beard in Peoria’s annual Santa Claus Parade? For the past five years, Peoria native Lyle Cunningham has sat in the sleigh. Now retired, Lyle spends his other 364 days with family, perfecting his cooking and photography, and volunteering with Peoria Area Community Events and the American Red Cross. Lyle’s love for cooking prompted him to compete in chili contests, and he’s won the Illinois State Championship People’s Choice Award three years in a row. Read on to get to know Peoria’s resident Mr. Claus a little better.

  1. What do you enjoy most about being in the Santa Claus Parade? The looks on children’s faces as Santa passes by. How they light up and when Santa looks and waves directly at them, they really get excited and turn to Mom or Dad and say, “Santa looked at me…he really looked at me!”
  2. What’s one thing most people don’t know about the parade? The Peoria Santa Parade is the nation’s longest continuously running Santa parade.
  3. Do you have your own Santa suit or do you rent it? The suit was made by Santa’s elves and is owned by PACE. However, the beard is mine. It was made by Academy Award-winning makeup artist Tammy Lane from Peoria.
  4. What’s your favorite holiday? I should probably say Christmas, but I like Halloween. I have 30 to 40 Dept. 56 Halloween buildings and houses and I start setting them out around October 1st.
  5. What’s your favorite aspect of central Illinois? The beauty of the river valley, the river, the changing seasons, close proximity to Chicago and St. Louis, and all the wonderful people of the area.
  6. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? To be a skinnier Santa Claus and stop procrastinating.
  7. What’s one thing you should throw away but haven’t? I wouldn’t “throw it away,” but I have my grandfather’s 1974 Mercedes. I should really give it to someone who could restore and enjoy it.
  8. What was your first job? Working at a soda fountain flipping hamburgers and making shakes in Peoria Heights in the late ‘50s.
  9. What’s the most impulsive thing you’ve ever done? We volunteered to work at the Mount Washington Weather Observatory in New Hampshire this October. We worked for a week at a place that claims to have “The World’s Worst Weather.”
  10. What’s your favorite retreat/getaway? A friend owns a bed-and-breakfast in Saugatuck, Michigan called Wickwood Inn. It’s a quiet community that’s nice to visit in the fall and winter. a&s