by Karen Phillips

It was 32 degrees out, but that didn’t darken anyone’s bright, smiley demeanor. Even babies held in their cries in hopes of meeting Mr. and Mrs. Claus. The line to chat with Tanglewood’s Santa held about 20 families, each person bundled up, kids’ hands and arms hidden in their jackets.

Santa Leonard and Mrs. Claus sat under an array of bright lights, one on each side of their blue-and-white, sleigh-like bench, another next to the photographer for the best shading.

An 18-month-old blond boy with a gigantic smile and a reindeer sweater was so excited and so happy to see Santa, but when he got closer, Santa noticed the boy’s facial expression change ever so slightly from pure joy to nervousness. Santa didn’t want to tarnish the boy’s image of him, so he got off the bench and to allowed the little boy and his parents to sit for photos comfortably. He got behind the bench, and Mrs. Claus positioned herself behind the photographer with a squeaky doggie puppet. She squeaked it to the left and the boy bounced. She squeaked it to the right and he stood up and giggled. Every time she squeaked it, he danced and laughed, shivering both from the cold and from the excitement. Santa popped his head right behind the little boy without him noticing every time Mrs. Claus squeaked the toy and the photographer would catch the shot.

Santa is an outcast.

Cliff Snider knows what it’s like to be the fat kid in class.

He used to get picked on and laughed at. But like most kids, he dealt with a heavy heart on the inside and a smile on the outside.

His smile faded when he lost his father in a car accident on Labor Day, 1962. Cliff was just 15 years old. He didn’t know how he was going to get through that Christmas.

Cliff belonged to a youth group at Wesley Memorial Church in High Point and they needed a Santa Claus. He was nominated for the role by his peers, so he wearily obliged. Going into that mission, he realized that the kids didn’t care that he was just a teenager in a rented beard and suit. They believed he was the real deal.

“As they started getting more excited that Santa was there, and hugging me and everything, I knew I had to be jolly,” Cliff said. “Santa can’t be sad-faced. They brought out the joy. And so I felt like God might have tapped me on the shoulder then and said, ‘This is something you can do to make people happy,’ and one way or another I continued doing Santa from then on.”

Santa is a chaufer.

Jac Grimes used to be a substitute school-bus driver. The last day before Christmas break, 2005, he was on duty at a school he hadn’t driven for before, wearing a cheap Santa hat and a plain red jacket — his hair and beard naturally long and white for most of his adult life — when a kid came on the bus and said, “Are you him? Are you him?” “Sure,” Jac said without hesitation. “And your parents told me you’ve been good, but I just wanted to make sure it’s true.” So the usual noisy, wild, crazy school bus proceeded without a peep for the entire bus ride. Jac decided from that moment on to become Santa Claus, and went to Santa school in preparation for the 2006 season.

Santa is a teacher.

Leonard Hutchens is a kindergarten teacher. “I was teaching first grade at the time, and I was going down the hallway when one of the kindergarteners turned back to his buddy and said, ‘Mr. Hutchens is Santa Claus,’” Leonard recalled, “and I remember the other little kid said, ‘How do you figure that?’ and [the boy] said, ‘Santa Claus has to be a teacher. He’s got all summer off to make all the toys, we’ve got all that time off before Christmas that he and the elves can load the sleigh up, and we’ve got all that time after Christmas that he can take a big nap before he has to be back in school. He has to be Santa Claus.’ “So he got me thinking about it and I decided to go for it,” Santa Leonard said as he laughed that familiar, comforting laugh that can brighten any mood.

Santa is for everyone.

Santa Cliff said, “I’ve had people stand right in my face and tell me, ‘You’re not the reason for Christmas, Jesus is the reason for Christmas,’ and wouldn’t even give me the chance to agree with them.” He believes Santa represents the spirit of giving just like the Wise Men. His primary belief, however, is that we have Christmas because of the birth of Christ, which was the original gift that God gave us, and he believes Santa represents that gift. “Santa’s just a symbol of Christmas, he’s not the reason for Christmas,” Santa Cliff said. “The children understand that.”

Santa Jac considers himself more of a secular Santa. He doesn’t feel it’s his job to educate children about religion; as a Unitarian Universalist, he leaves it up to people to make up their own minds. He feels it’s important that Santa is for all people. Instead of delving into the religious aspect of Christmas, Santa Jac’s primary mission is to teach the meaning of kindness and goodness. He will tell the Nativity Story or the story about the Wise Men, but he encourages the kids to talk to their parents about what it means. When he’s visiting kids, he reads them the story Are You Grumpy, Santa? about Santa having a bad day, but at the end someone has left him some cookies and he cheers up, and then Santa Jac stresses the power and importance of doing nice things for people.

Santa Leonard and Mrs. Claus don’t like to make a habit of pushing any specific religious beliefs one way or another. They have baby Jesus in a manger in order to recognize Him as the reason for the season. Parents and children can hold baby Jesus or take a picture with Him before they get their photos taken with Mr. and Mrs. Claus, if they choose to do so.

Santa is real.

Santa Cliff experienced his true transformation in 1995. He decided he was going to become Santa Claus instead of just playing a role. He went to the Charles W. Howard Santa School in Midland, Mich., where he learned how to be a man of character and role model, not just a man in a fake beard and rented suit. Cliff’s mother bought him his first Santa suit for Christmas in 1996 and his white hair and white beard became a part of his persona. “When I put on this suit, I believe that I am Santa Claus, and I am the embodiment of what Santa Claus should be. I’m not creating a fable, I’m creating a reality.”

“Poppy, what happened to your hair?” one of his grandchildren asked.

“I don’t know,” Santa Cliff answered. “It just seems like with the first frost, my hair turns white!” And they believed him. He’s known as “Poppy Claus” to his grandchildren and great grandchildren.

Santa Leonard loves having a wife who’s into the character as well. He realizes that there are a lot of Santas whose wives don’t want to be a part of that world, and he feels Emily has added a great component to the role.

Santa Leonard’s students never mention his dual personas, and he works hard at not letting his two worlds overlap. He’s been known to accidentally have his reindeer cam up on the white board, streaming live video feed of his reindeer when some of his kids enter the classroom, or a leftover jinglebell on his keychain, bit he’s quick to get rid of the evidence when he notices it. Being Santa has helped him be a better teacher because he always thinks, “What would Santa do?” Santa Jac said, “I consider the guy who goes to Walmart and gets a $40 suit with a fake beard and some fat pads to be ‘playing’ Santa Claus, in my opinion. Somebody that does what I do is a Santa portrayal artist.” He has real leather boots, a real leather belt and a nice suit because he cares about authenticity. Adults have an expectation in their minds of what they want Santa to be and Santa Jac feels he has a responsibility to live up to that expectation.

When he’s not at a work function, Santa Jac wears ‘workshop attire’ which is more casual and helps make Santa more real. He wears suspenders over a satin white button-down to help hold up his green pants. His striped red-and-green knee-high socks and red Crocs are comfortable for all the errands and activities Santa Jac has to get to throughout the day. When some people take off their suit, they’re not Santa anymore, Santa Jac said. “I can’t hardly ever get away from it no matter how I dress.”

All kids get to the age when they begin to question Santa’s existence, and Santa Jac encourages them to make that judgment call. “It’s okay for you not to believe in Santa Claus,” Santa Jac says, “because Santa will always believe in you. When you grow to be an adult, even if you lose your belief in Santa, you will regain that belief and that magic in a different way, especially if you become a parent.”

Santa is educated.

Santa Jac, Santa Leonard and Santa Cliff have all studied Santa Clausology at the International University of Santa Claus. They all have had background checks, they have all been taught to keep both hands visible in pictures and they all believe the ultimate goal for a Santa is to be an inspiration to kids worldwide. Santa Cliff has been Santa for 50 years and has written a book called Santa’s Journey: Sharing Christmas Year Round, which talks about his life and experiences as Santa Claus throughout the years. Santa Cliff has been awarded the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, an award given by the governor of North Carolina to any citizen who has distinguished himself in over 50 years of service to the state.

Santa Cliff sat in his big green chair, surrounded by preschoolers, checking to see if their names were on his Nice List. All of them were. Santa’s sat next to a Christmas tree with red, white and blue lights and ornaments, and decorated with the pictures of military veterans and small American flags.

After the kids told Santa what they wished for, they waved goodbye and he assured them he’d see them again, before long.

Along with his nice book, Santa Cliff has another book where he writes down the names of children who ask for intangible things like, “Can you bring mommy and daddy back together?” or “Will you make kids stop picking on me?” “The first time I experienced this, I was at Chik-fil-A,” Santa Cliff remembered, “and a little boy climbed up on my knee and he waited until all the rest of the children were gone because he was shy and he was overweight.

“He sat on my knee and I said, ‘Son, what do you want for Christmas?’ and he said, ‘I don’t want anything for Christmas.’ “I said, ‘Why not?’ He pulled me to him and he whispered in my ear and said, ‘All I want is for the children to quit picking on me and calling me names on the bus,’ and it broke my heart, because I knew how he felt, and I also knew that there wasn’t anything I could do about it,” Santa paused for a moment, collecting his composure and wiping a tear from his eye.

“So I explained to him, ‘Son, I understand how you feel and I’m afraid that Santa can’t make children be nice like you are, but I’ll tell you what I’m gonna do: When I get home tonight, I’m gonna write your name in my book so I’ll remember, and I’m gonna say my prayers for you. Would that be okay?’ “And a big smile came across his face and he said, ‘Yes, Santa, that’d be great.’ “So I gave him a candy cane and he jumped off my knee and he walked away, and just as he did, I felt like the Holy Spirit spoke to me and said, ‘Santa, that’s a promise you can keep.’ “So that night when I got home, I took off my suit, got my book out, and I sat by my bed, opened it up to that little boy’s name and started praying for him. And as sure as I’m sitting here talking to you, I felt like the windows and heavens opened up and God picked a special angel to go look after that fellow.

“That was important to me because it all of a sudden made me realize there’s something I can do here that maybe nobody else can do. There may be nobody else a child would trust like they do Santa Claus.”