ON BEING SANTA

Professional Clauses lift the hat on portraying St. Nick

BY ZACHARY HORNER, News + Record Staff
Posted 12/19/18

Did you know there was an organized, diverse and experienced group of Santa Clauses in your backyard?

Maybe you did. There’s a good chance that, if you’ve been to a Christmas …

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ON BEING SANTA

Professional Clauses lift the hat on portraying St. Nick

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Posted

Did you know there was an organized, diverse and experienced group of Santa Clauses in your backyard?

Maybe you did. There’s a good chance that, if you’ve been to a Christmas celebration, mall or other store in the Triangle area in the last few years, you’ve seen a member of the Triangle Santa Buddies, a group of 22 men that portray Santa Claus at various events every holiday season.

Oh, and there are also a few Mrs. Clauses in the mix.

According to the group’s mission statement, the group is “dedicated to improving the quality of Santa and Mrs. Claus services through continuing education, fellowship and mutual support.”

There’s even a Santa Claus Oath.

Three men are among the group that have taken the oath and spend their winters talking to children, taking pictures and strapping on the red suit. They are:

Santa Al: Al Capehart is the founding member of the Triangle Santa Buddies and has portrayed Santa in various spaces for more than 20 years. He lives in Pittsboro and has written a memoir, “Behind Santa’s Smile,” about his experiences. His father was a back-up Santa in the 1970s and 80s at a Richmond, Virginia, department store.

Santa Fabian: Also known as the “Diamond Star Santa,” Fabian Williams has portrayed Santa since 2015. He said he relishes being a “Santa of color” and that it speaks to kids who may not have seen a Santa like that before. Williams is originally from Massachusetts and said he never visited a Santa when he was younger.

Santa Norm: This holiday is Willow Springs resident Norman Hull’s first Christmas as Santa. He refers to himself as the “rookie of the crowd.” But he wasted little time getting into the game this year, already booking more than 130 hours at Cabela’s in Garner and Bass Pro Shops in Cary. Hull also worked with pre-teens and teenagers for 40 years in Miami, Florida, in Scout camps and Sunday school classes.

GETTING STARTED

A nearly-universal symbol of Santa Claus is the long white beard. Very few depictions of the character in film and television over the years have shown him without it. And according to our Santas, it’s one of the main reasons they found themselves in the position.

Santa Al: “In March of 1992, I stopped shaving. I’d planned a July European train tour with my son Albert Cameron (AC) to celebrate his college graduation. I wanted the convenience of not shaving while traveling. I had a beard for the trip, and decided to keep it. By October, I had grown more than two inches of grey facial hair. Suddenly, Santa Claus began to speak to me through my customers. One customer simply started calling me ‘Santa.’ And a longtime Duke Forest customer said, ‘You would make a great Santa Claus. You are thoughtful. You look like Santa. You should go to the mall. See if they will hire you to play Santa.’” (Excerpt from “Behind Santa’s Smile”)

Santa Norm: “It was kind of interesting. My son used to work at Bass Pro Shops in Cary. So he said that that particular year, one of those years they worked there they had three Santas working. One of them, by the name of Santa Larry, they struck up a good friendship. My son invited me out one night to meet him, and I did that. Just talked with him a while and enjoyed conversation with him. I had a little beard going, which I’ve had quite a while. After that conversation with Santa Larry, my kids were poking at me a little bit, saying, ‘You can do this.’ So I quit shaving.”

Santa Fabian: “In 2015, a young lady came up to me. I had my beard somewhat growing a little bit. She said, ‘You know what, you would make a great Santa.’ And I said, ‘OK.’ So I started growing the beard and getting into what Santa does, buying the items I needed to portray Santa. I have a really decent beard by now.”

IT HELPS TO LOOK LIKE SANTA

For each Santa, appearance is a big deal. Hundreds and hundreds of dollars are spent on getting the right outfit, the right look. And it’s vital that it’s authentic. Al Capehart’s first public appearance as Santa, sitting on a merry-go-round with a three-year-old girl, came in a 1992 newspaper advertisement for Northgate Mall in Durham.

Santa Al: “I was taken aback by the transformation the Santa suit had made. The man on the carousel was Santa Claus. I did not see Al. I had become Santa Al, and it took seeing that print ad to show me who I had become. Santa was saying to me, ‘Come on son, you can do this.’ In that moment, my self-perception changed and a new path in my life was revealed. My life changed. To this day I do not market myself as Santa Claus. I can’t claim to be Santa Claus. I offer Santa Claus services.” (Excerpt from “Behind Santa’s Smile")

Santa Fabian: “When you use a fake beard, then there’s a problem. People look at you like you’re not the real Santa. Kids pull your beard and want to know if you’re the real Santa or not. It’s been natural for me. I have a completely white beard that I grew.”

Santa Al: “It took me eight months to grow my beard, and I haven’t shaved since 1992. I shampoo occasionally. When I first started out, I had to bleach it a lot.”

HANGING OUT WITH THE KIDS

Another popular part of the Santa story is his interaction with children, asking them what they want for Christmas. But according to our Santas, they ask just as many questions of him as he does of them.

Santa Norm: “(A kid asked me), 'Are you really Santa Claus?’ If you’re in uniform, you are really Santa Claus. You will look them in the eye and say, ‘I really am.’ They calm down and I say, ‘Who else would I be?’”

Santa Fabian: “I love the smiles and the things they get when they see you. I don’t know if it’s the twinkle in your eye or the smile that keeps them hopefully believing in Santa. That’s the first question I ask, ‘Do you believe in the magic of Christmas?’ Of course they say, ‘I have my doubts.’ I say, ‘Once you stop believing, you’ll stop receiving gifts from Santa.’ You just want to keep a smile on the face of the kids.”

Santa Al: “It’s a calling. I think of all the Santas I know, I don’t know of one that hadn’t been a Boy Scout to start with. That’s a certain kind of person, personality.”

GOING BEYOND THE CHARACTER

According to Christian tradition, Saint Nicholas, the inspiration for Santa Claus, was known for being a gift-giver. These Santas say they try to embody the spirit of Santa Claus, and for them, that goes beyond tangible items.

Santa Norm: “You have fun with them and try to keep them smiling and keep their spirit going. It won’t be long before they are unfortunately told the truth. But in the meantime, you try to keep them going. We stay in character all day long. Even when you get a screamer, it’s OK. It’s part of being anywhere from 18 months to 30 months old, you don’t trust anybody but Mom and Dad.”

Santa Al: “Santa Claus becomes a physical manifestation of the legendary character. A lot of transfer takes place which allows a different kind of understanding and relationship to the point that Santa’s intent, of course, is to spread the Christmas spirit. If it is the Christmas spirit, the more you share the Christmas spirit, the more Christmas spirit there is. It’s the spreading of the Christmas spirit — that’s Santa’s job.”

Santa Fabian: “Most kids have not seen a black Santa. I’ve seen what they’ve been looking for in adults, looking for a helper or looking for someone to understand them. (My goal is) ‘I’m here to listen to you. I’m here, just tell me what you want. Let’s open the door on that.’ It’s been a joy for me so far. It seems like I’m expanding more than I did last year. One child said to me, ‘Santa, I’ve seen all the other Santas, but you’re a Santa that looks just like me.’ That moved me big time.”

PART OF A LEGACY

There are no readily available statistics as to how many people dress up as Santa Claus every year to entertain at malls, retail stores, business parties and more, but it’s been a staple of the holiday season for many years. Search “Santa Claus schools” on Google, and you’ll come up with results for schools in Atlanta, Charlotte, Michigan, Oregon, Canada and more.

Perhaps thanks to that, they say, members of the Triangle Santa Buddies believe that the tradition will last.

Santa Al: “It wouldn’t be there without the kids, and that’s why there’s always going to be a Christmas. There’s always going to be kids. Saint Nicholas will continue to be a part of that wonder of the birth of Jesus. A visit from Saint Nicholas tells us when Christmas comes.”

Santa Norm: “Santa’s a very special part of everyone’s life, and I hope it does. From what I’ve learned, there are hundreds of thousands of Santas. There are hundreds of schools that teach men and women how to do this art. It’s in the entertainment business. I gotta think that, as widespread as it is, that it will endure. I think as long as good people get together and try to keep something going on behalf of the children of the world, we’ll be OK. As long as I can breathe and chuckle, I’ll keep a twinkle in my eye and try to pass that on to the kids.”

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SantaSoHappy

Great article. Nice way to interview a terrific selection of Santas. You showed how anyone can put on the Red Suit, but not everyone can be a Real Santa. If you love it, it is so much fun. The Santas and the Mrs. Clauses in the TSB enjoy bringing the Spirit Of Christmas to children of all ages.

| Thursday, December 20, 2018