Here comes Santa Claus: Swoope man shares tales from 12 years as Saint Nick
“A little girl comes up to me, and her eyes get real big. Her mother comes over and says, She thinks you’re Santa Claus,” remembers Craig, who grew his white beard to go with his mop of white curly hair when he took over as the Santa Claus at the Staunton Mall back in 1998 and has kept it since.
Since then, Craig can hardly leave his home in Swoope without getting a “Hey, Santa!” or something equivalent from at least a few people. Not that he shies away from the recognition.
“I love it. I have four to five thousand kids on my lap in a year. The most that I’ve done is 389 kids in four hours. Very organized group. They had me just sit there, they had somebody bring the child up, sit on my lap, basic questions, the camera is going off, and then Mrs. Claus was helping get them down. Somebody was putting gifts in a bag, and we were on to the next one,” said Craig, who as you might imagine has as many Santa stories as he’s had kids on his lap.
Like the one with the little girl in the restaurant. “I asked her mother, What did you get her for Christmas? She said, A trampoline and a bicycle. OK. So the little girl comes back, and I say, Are you being careful on that trampoline? Her eyes got big again. Yes, I’m being real careful.”
His November-December schedule is tight, with long days at the Mall coupled with nights and weekends doing special events. Craig also makes house calls, visiting families to deliver presents to kids whose parents in some cases make the day that Craig is able to stop by their effective family Christmas. “Whatever day it is, a day or two before Christmas, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, a day or two after, that’s their Christmas, that’s when they open their presents,” Craig said.
He also fills special requests, like the Christmas that he made a house call to visit a child with leukemia. “They called on Christmas Eve, and I’m usually booked up and then some, but … that was a special Christmas. That was his last Christmas, and he got to see Santa,” Craig said.
He’s had as young as 2 days old and as old as 107 on his lap. “I’ve had a 400-pound man on my lap for a picture. Then I turned around and sat on his lap.”
He rarely gets “the pull” – without parental prompting. “The only time it happens is when the parent says, He’s the real Santa Claus. Come on, pull his beard. The kids don’t do it on their own,” Craig said.
Times have changed in myriad ways. “In ’98 it was the Polaroid. My eyes saw yellow spots all day long,” Craig said. “We went from Polaroid to the 35mm. Now they take the picture, and you can look at it on the computer screen, see which one you like, and print it out all there all at once. Technology has taken over.”
The questions that he asks kids have changed. “When I first started out, I used to ask the kids, Do you listen to your mom and dad? That got me into some difficult situations. My daddy lives in New York. My momma lives in Florida. Now the question is, Do you listen to your teachers? The safe questions are the ones about school. Are you doing your homework?”
More change: “The kids are more sensitive today,” Craig said. “I get different stories from the kids that want to give more than they used to. Kids who say they want to give presents to kids who won’t get them. One boy said he was going to put all his old toys in a bag and leave them for me to give to other girls and boys. I thought that was a neat idea.”
Toys – Craig has to keep up with what’s hot and what’s not.
“I’ve got a toy book here that we were looking at last night,” he said. His Santa career spans Barney, Elmo, Dora the Explorer. “Barbie comes and goes depending on the year. Power Rangers. Bob the Builder. You have to be up on what’s out there. Bob the Builder, for example. A kid says Bob the Builder, and I say, Bob the Builder says, Can we do it? And the kid says, Yes, we can. Barney – I sang the Barney song so many times it’s not funny. I can’t even remember the words now. Funny thing is – I’d probably have a hard time with the reindeer. Unless I sat here and started singing the song, I probably couldn’t name them.”
It’s not all warm cookies and milk being Santa.
“One thing you’ve got to be careful of – the flu and the cold. It’s seasonal. Things go around. The suit, everything, is taken off the set and cleaned up to make sure that it’s all clean. Every night. You have to do that,” Craig said. “And this happens at least once every year. Well, little Johnny isn’t feeling good today. We thought we’d bring him to see Santa and get him some ice cream, and maybe he’d feel better. And I’m thinking – little Johnny’s sick.”
Sick kids are the easy part. The adults can be interesting cases – like the woman who threatened to sue, claiming that Craig had promised her daughter that Santa would bring a specific gift. “One, I have kids and grandkids of my own, so I know better,” Craig said. “Two, when the Mall asked me if I was worried, I said no. I wanted to see the kind of lawyer that would bring that kind of suit.”
And then there are the people who don’t like Santa Claus. “I say, That’s fine. Don’t let me offend you. It’s a free country. This is how I believe. I don’t have a problem with that. I’m a professed Christian, but I’m not here to push my religion on you. Santa Claus is Santa Claus,” Craig said.
Not that all adults are hard cases. “I was in Charlottesville one day, and there were three little kids, and they were screaming. Their mother saw me, and she started to look relieved. I looked at the kids and said, You’d better listen to your mother. You could have heard a pin drop. They got into the car, and she looked at me like, Thank you.”
It’s magical being Ronnie Craig – being Santa Claus 365 days a year.
“People have told me for years that I should do a book on what kids tell me,” he said, sharing another of his favorites.
“The neatest story, the one I’ll never forget, is a boy sitting on my lap, saying, Santa Claus, I hadn’t been good, and I hadn’t been bad, but I’m taking medicine, and I’m going to get better.”
Craig chuckled, and it was hard not to think, Ho-ho-ho.
It’s just as hard for an adult to not think Santa when you see Ronnie Craig as it is for a little girl at a restaurant.
“After I asked her about the trampoline, she ran back to her table and came back with a piece of candy. So I kept it going. I asked her, Are you taking care of your bicycle?”
Here’s where Santa had messed up. And it does happen.
“She looked at me and got this real adult face, and she said, You forgot to put the training wheels on!”
Santa, chastened, promised not to do that again next year.
Story by Chris Graham. Chris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.