Born in 1908, James (Jim) D. Rielly was a lifelong resident of Bristol Rhode Island whose love for his country and his community 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 New England for his kindness, generosity, and countless charitable acts. He was featured in the New York Times on multiple occasions and in hundreds of other newspapers throughout the United States. In 1982 he appeared on the television news program, PM Magazine hosted by Sheila Martines and Matt Laurer.
In recognition of his efforts, Jim Rielly was the recipient of numerous awards and commendations. He was a member of the Knights of Columbus and an honorary member of the Bristol Rotary Club, which presented him the Paul Harris Fellowship Award. He was a life member of the Bristol Elk Lodge No 1860 and the Cup Defenders Association. He also received awards from the Bristol Jaycees, the Rhode Island House of Representatives, the Leonardo DaVinci Lodge, Sons of Italy, and the Seabees of Davisville.
The Coast Guard Cutter Spar honored Jim Rielly for the loving and compassionate time he shared with crew members and their families. He also received awards from the Naval Air Station at Quonset Point, the US Naval Construction Battalion Center, the USS Hammerberg and the USS Essex.
In 1989, the Bristol Town Council presented Jim Rielly with the Bristol Citizen of the Year Award.
Over the course of his lifetime, Jim Rielly received numerous letters of recognition from celebrities and dignitaries from all over the world including: Eleanor Roosevelt, Senators Theodore Francis Green, Claiborne Pell, and John Chafee, Presidents Dwight D Eisenhower and Richard M Nixon, and even his Holiness, Pope John Paul II.
For 10 years Jim Rielly portrayed the character Charlie Weaver, appearing in Bristol’s Fourth of July Parades and at various places throughout Rhode Island. He once received a letter from the real Charlie Weaver, Cliff Arquette, who wrote “Keep up the good work but don’t take any checks”.
In 1976, the year of our nation's Bicentennial, the town of Bristol appointed Jim Rielly as official Town Crier. His duties were to call to order the Patriotic Exercises and officially begin the Military and Civic Parade. As Town Crier he participated in all Bristol Fourth of July Parades from 1975 to 1989. He also participated in the official capacity of Town Crier in numerous other community and civic events.
But Jim Rielly’s most notable role was that as Rhode Island's own "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 appeared as Santa Claus for a family living in an abandoned chicken coup. For more than 60 years, he would visit various orphanages, hospitals, nursing homes, schools, churches, charitable organizations, military bases and the State House.
As Santa Claus, he traveled by helicopter, plane, Coast Guard vessel and sleigh to bring joy, laughter and cheer to literally hundreds of thousands of people. Accepting no payment for his appearances, his only fee requirement was that we share the true meaning of Christmas by loving one another. Close to his heart were those occasions when he spent time at the homes with mentally and physically handicapped children.
In 1970, the town of Bristol named a street in his honor, Rielly Lane, and in 1975 the town dedicated the James D. Rielly bench at Rockwell Park. In 1979, the United States Senate entered his name into the Congressional Record for his kindness to people as “James D. Rielly, A Truly Remarkable Santa Claus from Rhode Island.” And on December 22, 2010, James D. Rielly was honored posthumously as one of the inaugural inductees into the prestigious International Santa Claus Hall of Fame in Santa Claus, Indiana.
Today, at the entrance of Bristol’s Town Hall, hangs an oil painting of Jim Rielly; welcoming visitors to his beloved town as Bristol’s unofficial Ambassador.
James D. Rielly died on November 26, 1991 at the age of 83.
Edited by Michael Rielly