By Bobby Ross Jr.

In the most merry moment of my newspaper career, a world-renowned senior citizen gave me an exclusive interview for Christmas. But first I had to sit on his knee.

I found the man who claims to be “the real Santa Claus” making children smile at Quail Springs Mall in Oklahoma City.

Santa sported long white hair, a fluffy white beard and wire-rimmed glasses. The hair and the beard were real. I’m not sure about the glasses.

To my surprise, Santa had no red coat, no thick black belt and no knee-high boots.

Instead, the casual St. Nick wore red knickers, black slippers, red, white and green striped socks and a colorful shirt covered with holiday bears.

Red suspenders hung over a belly made plump by a few million too many chocolate chip cookies.

BR: I understand you’re the real Santa?

SANTA: That’s right. I came last year to Oklahoma City because I had heard about the children down here and how special they are. I just got overrun with loving-kindness, and I just had to come back again this year.

BR: How do you explain all the other guys running around in red suits and calling themselves Santa?

SANTA: Well, I know they do that. The children need to understand that they (the other guys in red suits) are my helpers. Because there are a lot of children out there that need a chance to see Santa and give him their lists.

So I don’t mind because up until Christmas Eve, I can’t be everywhere at once. I just tell the kids, `Well, they are my helpers and they aren’t the real Santa.’ But you know what? The kids know it, too.

BR: So you’ve never considered a lawsuit against these guys?

SANTA: No, no. They’re doing their best to help.

BR: How much time do you spend here at the mall during the Christmas season?

SANTA: Well, I’m here a lot because I want to see the kids. The closer it gets to Christmas, of course, the longer I’m here to see them. I try to make myself available, you know.

BR: How long would a typical day be?

SANTA: It varies. From eight hours a day up to and surpassing 12 hours a day.

You know, sometimes the mall says, `Santa, you can go home early.’ But I don’t. I stay. As long as there’s children there that want to see me, I stay.

BR: How many children do you see on those 12-hour days?

SANTA: Oh boy. It runs into the hundreds and hundreds. It does.

BR: Does your knee ever get tired?

SANTA: You know, it doesn’t. It never does. And it’s the darnedest thing. I sit there and I get nestled in that chair and I just love the children, and they actually put energy into Santa. When they smile at me, I just get real excited and just love Christmas and the children, and it gives me energy.

BR: Do you go home to the North Pole at night or stay here in Oklahoma City?

SANTA: I stay right here, and Oklahoma City just takes wonderful care of Santa.

BR: Do the elves and Mrs. Claus not get upset that this is the busiest time of the year and you’re here in Oklahoma?

SANTA: No, they don’t get upset because they love the children so much. They know what we’re doing. So they commit to do this in their heart. And they love doing it.

BR: Do you really use a magic key to get into houses where there are no chimneys?

SANTA: You know, some people refer to it as a key, but I prefer to call it the magic of Christmas. Because there are so many things about Christmas that are so special in the hearts and minds of people. And I’m not just talking little ones. I mean, big people. People who have seen many Christmases come and go. And it’s just real special to them.

BR: If there’s no chimney, do you still park the sleigh on the roof?

SANTA: Where there’s room, I park it on the roof. And you know what they do? These moms and dads and the little ones have been putting carrots on the roof. And I want to tell you – Rudolph, he goes crazy over those carrots. And ole Dasher, he gets in there too and likes to have a carrot once in a while.

And then they put that reindeer food up there for them and they love that. I mean, those rascals, they just get right into it. It just makes it fun for everybody.

BR: Is Rudolph’s nose red all year long or just at Christmastime?

SANTA: Well, you know, it glows at Christmastime. People ask me, `Well, Santa, don’t your reindeer fly all the time?’ Well, of course not. They fly on Christmas Eve, and that’s the same thing with Rudolph’s nose. Come Christmas Eve, boy, when it’s really cloudy and it’s overcast and we can’t see, Rudolph gets right in front and lights the way.

BR: Do any of the other reindeer feel slighted, like maybe Rudolph’s getting too much of the attention?

SANTA: I don’t really think so, because they are so well known. You know, Dasher and Dancer and Comet and Cupid – they’re well known and they just really appreciate the fact that Rudolph is there to provide that guidance. And Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen, I’ve never really noticed them being upset. Because it’s like a team. We work together. I couldn’t do it without them. And that’s how I sense they feel toward each other.

BR: You mentioned the carrots for the reindeer. Are cookies and milk still your favorite snacks?

SANTA: Chocolate chip cookies. Chocolate chip cookies. (Santa stuck his lips directly against the tape recorder as he said this.) I love them! Chocolate chip cookies and some milk. That’s just my favorite.

BR: How many do you figure you eat on a typical Christmas Eve?

SANTA: Oh son, look at me, this is real. (He rubbed his plump belly.) We’re talking thousands of cookies, you know. I didn’t get like this just overnight. It took years and years.

BR: Is this casual wardrobe a new fashion statement?

SANTA: I’m glad you asked because this is my workshop outfit. This is what I wear in my workshop. Now a lot of Santas, like you see with my helpers, they wear the red coat and the hat. … But when I come into my house, just like every boy and girl, I take my boots off. I put my slipper shoes on. And I take my hat and hang it up. My coat, I hang it up. And I go around in my workshop with this shirt and my knickers on and my red, white and green socks – they’re my favorite. This is the workshop look.

BR: Do you always bring children what they ask for?

SANTA: You know, I don’t. I try. Sometimes, children come in with lists that are 3 feet long, and I try to remind them that there are a lot of boys and girls out there that are really hoping they get just one thing. I want children to have a sense of that, that Christmas isn’t made up of how much you get.

You know, I have kids who come through here and what they want from Santa is for mommy and daddy to get back together. They don’t want mommy and daddy to get divorced. That’s a tough one. I don’t tell them it’s all going … to be OK. The other day, I had a little girl say that to me. … All I could tell her was that I knew that Jesus loved her. What can you tell a little girl like that?

And I had a bell in my pocket that fell off Prancer’s harness, and I gave it to her. I said, `I want you to take this with you because when it gets really tough … I want you to take this little bell out of your pocket and I want you to ring it. I want you to remember that Jesus loves you and Santa loves you, too. I want you to find the strength to make it through.’

So no, you don’t always get everything you asked for from Santa. But the one thing you’re going to know is that Santa loves you and you’re special with Santa.

BR: What would you be or who would you be if you weren’t Santa?

SANTA: You know, I can’t imagine because it’s such a blessing to be Santa. I have no desire to be anybody else.

BR: You never want to just chop off the beard and the hair?

SANTA: No. This way the kids recognize me. I mean, even when it’s not Christmas, I visit different cities and I check up on the kids from time to time to make sure they’re good little boys and girls, you know, because sometimes they get pretty ornery and carry on when nobody’s around. But I’m there and I’m watching and I’m keeping track of how good they are.

BR: Are most of the girls and boys being good this year?

SANTA: Yes, they are. I’d say for the most part, they really are. They’re trying to be good. Some of them need to be reminded, of course. But for the most part, they do try. They really do.

BR: Anything else you would say to the boys and girls?

SANTA: Well, I would just reiterate how much Santa loves them and how special they are to me. And I want them to know that. With Santa, they’re just No. 1 … and I love them and I appreciate them. I want them to have a wonderful Christmas. I’m going to put some surprises in their Christmas this year. I want it to be extra special, and I want them to have a merry Christmas.

This interview and the feature below were originally published Dec. 1, 1997, in The Oklahoman.

Santa, Where’s Your Sleigh?

Bobby Ross Jr. • Modified: December 1, 1997 at 12:00 am • Published: December 1, 1997

This time of year, finding Santa Claus is no problem. But what
about the sleigh and the reindeer?

Every Santa, it seems, has a different explanation.

Go to Lancet Lane in The Village. “Santa” Buddy Hayes has a
recreational vehicle parked in his driveway. But no sleigh.

For years, Santa and “Mrs. Claus” Donona Hayes have had a pretty
good excuse: No place to park in nearby Nichols Hills.

“We can’t park our reindeer and sleigh in Nichols Hills because
they don’t even allow pickups,” the Hayeses have told children.

For children who don’t believe the parking excuse, the Hayeses
explain that the reindeer “get skittish when cars are around.”

Step into “Santa” John T. Snelson’s northwest Oklahoma City hair
salon. He explains that the reindeer can’t fly except on
Christmas Eve.

“Santa flies in on TWA,” Snelson tells the children.

Talk to the Quail Springs Mall Santa. He’ll deny ever leaving
his reindeer on the mall roof.

“Actually, the reindeer and Mrs. Claus and my head elf, Bernard
– they’re all back at the North Pole,” said the mall Santa.

He has no other name because he is Santa. Just ask him.

While the mall Santa hangs out in Oklahoma, it seems Mrs. Claus,
the elves and reindeer stay home and do all the work.

“In my toy factory, I got these big rolls and piles, and the
reindeer actually help me,” the mall Santa said. “Dasher and
Dancer, they’ll be pulling these sleds with wheels on them up and
down the aisles.

“Prancer and Vixen and Comet and Cupid – I mean, they’re just
right at it. Then there’s Donner and Blitzen, and everybody’s just
helping out big time because we’re all excited.”

But not every Santa depends on his reindeer.

In northeast Oklahoma City, “Santa” Richard Palmer said he has
elves and a personal tailor.

However, Palmer readily admits he has no reindeer.

“Maybe that’s the difference between me and these others,” he
said, laughing. “I’ve never owned a sleigh.”

But he does slide down chimneys, right?

“No, don’t go through chimneys.”

Where Santa Lives

At Buddy and Donona Hayes’ house, the Christmas tree stays up
all year long.

The living-room couch has a red and green pattern. Dozens of
Santa Claus figurines spread season’s greetings on the piano.
“Our neighborhood kids come by and knock on the door and say,
Can I talk to Santa?’ ” Donona Hayes said.

Of course they can, she replies.

And by the way, she adds, don’t forget Mrs. Claus will need help
shoveling the sidewalk when it snows.

Sure, the Clauses keep their permanent home in the North Pole.
But they also spend several months each year at their vacation home
in The Village.

Buddy Hayes’ natural white beard blends easily into his Santa
suit’s fake white fur.

Hayes, 72, realized his Kris Kringle calling 25 years ago.

At the time, he let his blond hair grow out to play Moses in a
church play. But then observant friends noticed that, minus the
rod, Moses looked strikingly like Santa.

A quarter-century later, the Hayeses play Santa and Mrs. Claus
year-round.

They give dolls, teddy bears and stuffed rabbits to neighborhood
children. They oblige the youngsters and senior citizens who greet
“Santa” in restaurants, even when he’s not wearing red. They even
smile and promise to do what they can when strangers ask for
diamonds and new cars.

“We deliver cars,” Buddy Hayes said, smiling. “But it comes with
a salesman and a payment book.”

Being Mr. and Mrs. Claus carries responsibility.

“You have to be nice all the time because the kids are watching
you,” she said. “If you snap at someone or are grumpy, the kids are
watching.”

That’s why, Buddy Hayes said, he saves his grumpiness for home.
But the retired minister’s wife calls him a teddy bear.

“It’s nice being married to Santa Claus. He loves children and
they love him.”

At Sunday school at Henderson Hills Baptist Church in Edmond,
some children tell their parents, “We can never leave this church
because Santa goes here.”

One place the Hayeses don’t go – at least not this time of year
– is the shopping mall.

“We can’t cut his beard and we can’t tuck it in his shirt, so we
can’t go to the mall,” Donona Hayes said. “The kids just go crazy.
“If we do have to go to the mall, we just explain that he’s
checking up on his helpers.”

The Hayeses, owners of Santa by Appointment, married 40 years
ago. He was 32 and she was 17.

From time to time, Buddy Hayes contemplates giving up the Santa
routine.

But then a bright-eyed toddler hugs him.

“If you could look in their eyes, they just shine and glow,” he
said.

Gift Of Love

Like Buddy Hayes, Clyde Shepherd could play Santa in a
modern-day “Miracle on 34th Street.”

Shepherd, who retired from the Army and later the General Motors
plant in Oklahoma City, often is mistaken for Santa.

Then again, it’s no mistake.

Shepherd, who recently moved to Lubbock, Texas, played Santa at
Crossroads Mall in Oklahoma City for six years and returned last
month for a few days.

“I love every minute of it,” said Shepherd, whose son Ron lives
in Norman. “These little kids, they’re a lot smarter than we give
them credit for. You don’t expect some of the things they tell you.”

He asks what the children want for Christmas, then tries not to
act surprised.

That can be difficult sometimes.

Take the 4-year-old boy who asked for two Christmas gifts – only
two Christmas gifts: a chocolate milk shake and a chain saw.

“I said, That’s a real combination,’ and then he repeated it,”
Shepherd said. “I said, Well, that’s nice.’ ”

Santa must be careful about what he promises. However, parents
often give Santa hints.

“I had one kid tell me, Santa, you didn’t bring me what I
wanted last year,’ ” Shepherd said. “I said, Well, you weren’t
as good as you said you’d be.’ ”

The kid agreed.

Like Buddy Hayes, Shepherd can’t stop being Santa when Christmas
is over.

“You can’t grow a beard overnight,” he said.

Besides, he used to trim his beard a few inches every January.
“It didn’t fool them a bit,” he said.

A Different Santa

Richard Palmer’s Santa suit looks strangely unfamiliar.

Unlike the traditional red suit with white fur, his burgundy
velvet robe features a patterned trim and a hood on back.

But that’s not all that’s different about this Santa.

For one thing, chocolate chip cookies aren’t his favorite snack.
This Santa prefers sweet potato pie.

Palmer, a black Santa in a world of look-alike white Santas,
jokes that he “feels a little hurt” by all the Santas in red suits.

If they’re going to mimic the real Santa, couldn’t they at least
change wardrobes occasionally?

“Do you wear the same thing every day?” Palmer asked,
mischievously.

“Santa” Palmer appears on greeting cards made by the Real Santa
Claus Card Co., of which he is chief executive officer. The cards
are used as church fund-raisers.

The Tabernacle Baptist Church member touts Christmas as a time
to celebrate Jesus Christ’s birth.

He considers Santa’s sleigh and reindeer “just a marketing ploy
to get you away from the real reason of Christmas.”

“The real reason for Christmas is not to go and buy your wife a
new car,” he said. “But you can give her a nice hug. She’ll
appreciate that.”

As for how Santa spends Christmas Eve? He delivers gifts, of
course – gifts of peace and goodwill.

Santa’s prayer “is faster than any computer chip,” he said. “It
can circle the world in less than a second.”

Magic of Santa

John T. Snelson just got a new beard and wig, but he’s not
impressed.

“It’s not as good as the first one I had,” Snelson said, using
an adhesive to stick Santa’s bushy white mustache under his nose.

In real life, Snelson has white hair and a white beard, but both
are much too short for anyone to confuse him with Santa. However,
each Christmas season for 15 years, he has put on the traditional
Santa garb.

“I always want the kids to believe they’ve been with the real
Santa Claus,” Snelson said. “I’ve been fortunate, as far as I know.”
Snelson’s foray into Santa’s world started strangely enough: For
Halloween, he had played Dracula in his neighborhood.

Later a neighborhood leader wanted someone to play Santa and
figured “anyone that would run around as Dracula would probably go
around as Santa.”

That first year, Snelson visited a local hospital in his Santa
suit. There, he met a boy named Jimmy.

“Jimmy, don’t cry,” Snelson heard a mother say as he passed the
boy’s room.

“I stepped in the doorway and I said, Jimmy, when did you get
here?’ ”

Jimmy, who was 4 or 5, had broken legs and was crying “crocodile
tears.” But his tears disappeared when Santa talked to him and gave
him a Christmas mouse ornament.

When Snelson left, Jimmy’s grandfather followed him.
“Santa, thank you so much,” the grandfather said.

Snelson thought to himself, “Wow, what a neat character this
Santa is.”

Fifteen years later, Snelson gives children plastic Santa rings
as well as tree ornaments. The rings are a secret sign that the
child has met Santa.

The Community Bible Church member always asks children if they
know whose birthday is celebrated on Christmas.

“One kid said, Yeah, mine,’ ” Snelson said, chuckling. “I said,
Oh, is your birthday on Christmas?’ He said, No, May 7.’ ”

Snelson has considered letting his hair grow out and becoming a
“natural” Santa.

“But it’ll be when I retire,” he said.

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