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Cover Story - Posted November 23, 2012 noon
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photos by Jeff Harbin, Life of Riley Photography

The Men in Red

Will the real Santa please stand up?

If you tug on their snowy beards, you won’t hear a snap. Poke their portly tummies, and you’ll get a belly-rolling chuckle in response. We went undercover to find the real Santa, and for these three jolly gentlemen, being the man in red isn’t just a gig; it’s not a shtick, and it’s certainly not a performance filled with fake ho, ho, ho’s, forced smiles and feigned merriment. It’s a 365-day, full-time job that calls for commitment to staying in character, taking note of whispered Christmas wishes and handing out candy canes and toys year round. (One Mrs. Claus says her Mr. Claus has taken wearing red a bit too seriously.)

We caught these guys red-handed. Even if they’re disguised in everyday attire, it’s impossible not to notice the bearded man standing in front of you in the grocery checkout line, sitting in the pew behind you at church or passing you in the hallway at work. Sorry, Saint Nick, but there’s just nowhere to hide.
Whether they’re pumping up crowds at Amarillo Bulls games, inspiring hope at pediatric wards or ushering in the season at Christmas parties, these Kris Kringles are not in the money-making business – they’ll tell you that themselves. They’re in the business of spreading the holiday spirit and perpetuating belief in this beloved figure.

************************************************************************************

It’s after 4:30 p.m. and for Mike Havran that means one thing: “I’m off,” he says, as he loosens his white necktie dangling over his red, button-up shirt. “I really didn’t wear this on purpose.”

Three years ago, Mike grew out his beard to appease his twin grandchildren who were begging for Santa Claus. He couldn’t tell them no (he never has, his wife teases) so the next Christmas they got what they wished for. They were 16 at the time. Now, it’s become a tradition.

“He loves it,” exclaims his wife, Sarah, or shall we call her, Mrs. Claus. “He loves the kids that come up to him in the store. Just watching them grin and smile because he tells them, ‘Shhh, I’m on vacation. Nobody is supposed to know.’ He lives the image of Santa. He never lets a child walk away thinking maybe that was or maybe that wasn’t.”

Mike works at Canyon Independent School District. “Go, Santa!” one coworker shouts, thrusting her arm in the air as she marches by.

“Of course,” another professes when asked if he believes in Santa. “He works on my computer.”

One side of his official badge displays a typical mug shot and his name, Mike Havran; but the other side is of a jovial man in a red suit and floppy hat, with the name Santa Claus underneath.

“I don’t do that on purpose,” he claims. “It just flips that way at the most opportune times.”

One time Mike got caught at the grocery store by a child who questioned his identity because of his lean stomach. Mike turned around and whispered that he had to save room for all the milk and cookies on Christmas Eve so he watches what he eats during the year. He always carries toys in his car, and during the holiday season, his pockets are stuffed with little trinkets, such as a Disney Princess puzzle or light-up bouncy ball.

Mike is a fairly new member of the Amarillo Santa network, a white-bearded order of such, but he’s put in his time the past few years, volunteering as Santa Claus for the Eveline Rivers Project and visiting Canyon schools. This year he served as good ol’ Saint Nick for the Amarillo Symphony’s Christmas Roundup, not to mention the free pictures with Santa he offers while running errands during the holiday season.

Mike reminisces about his first encounter with Santa Claus. He recalls his uncle Pat dressing up in a worn bath robe with cotton balls stuck all over his face. The suit was less than convincing, but the young Mike believed anyway. To him, that was Santa Claus.

“It doesn’t have to be something like Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy, but kids have to be able to believe in something,” Sarah states. “Maybe it’s their dreams. If a child believes in Santa Claus, their dreams are something they will look forward to because they have the belief that the unusual, the far fetched, the possibly untrue can be true. They make their dreams come true because of what they have in their hearts.”

Q&A with Saint Nick


Amarillo Magazine: What do you do for the other 364 days of the year?
Saint Nick: Make toys. What do you think?! Good Lord, you think that thing works by itself?

AM: Do you have a favorite reindeer?
SN: That’s like, “Do you have a favorite child?” You can’t really answer that question. I love them all the same…

AM: Have they ever made you mad?
SN: Eight years ago Blitzen stepped on my right foot and I now have a pin in my fifth metatarsal. Four years ago, Donner stepped on my left foot and now I have a bigger pin in that metatarsal.

AM: Have you ever met the Easter Bunny?
SN: Yes. I have helped the Easter Bunny. If you ever look at a rabbit, they don’t have opposable thumbs so it’s hard for them to make toys.

AM: Santa is a year-round job it seems. Do you ever take a vacation?
SN: Oh, definitely. Jamaica. The Caribbean. Florida next year. Cruise ships are great. I don’t have to worry about anything. The reindeer leave me alone. The elves stay at home. I sometimes bring one of them.

AM: If you don’t wear your Santa suit all year long, how will people recognize you?
SN: Look at this face. Come on. Just look at this face!

AM: Do you actually like milk that much?
SN: Truth? I love milk. And contrary to what some people have said in movies, I am not lactose intolerant. Soy milk. That stuff is ew, yuck!

AM: Chocolate chip or sugar cookies?
SN: Oh, chocolate chip definitely. Definitely chocolate chip! Don’t sneak oatmeal raisin in there. Blah!

AM: How do you keep your beard so clean and kempt?
SN: Nothing special. Every day it gets washed. Conditioner. I have a spray-on moisturizer. It gets brushed continuously or combed continuously. Otherwise it would go pfff. Ho, ho, ho.

AM: How you do really fit all those presents in one bag?
SN: (Sighs) I’m glad, I’m very glad people haven’t tied this together, but if you look at “Harry Potter,” the little witch in “Harry Potter” has that Bag of Holding. They stole that idea from my sack!

AM: How do you communicate with everyone around the world?
SN:When I’m there, I can speak their language. How to explain this? It’s not so much I have the ability to speak other languages, but I have the ability to make other people think I’m speaking their language.

AM: Is the old saying true about naughty children receiving lumps of coal?
SN:There are no naughty children at Christmas time. Elves? Yeah. I’ve been known to give elves coal.

AM: What would you like to say to all the children out there eager for Christmas morning?
SN: Keep believing.

************************************************************************************

Victor Taylor hands out candy canes all year while he’s on his route with the City of Amarillo. He’s already gone through 45 boxes and it’s not even Christmas. While working at Wal-Mart, he volunteered to be Santa, just to give it a try. He’s now nearing a decade of taking on the role of Father Christmas.

“At the time he didn’t have a real beard,” says his wife Sharron, who officially became Mrs. Claus last year. “But he had the belly.”

“Yes. Well, not quite as big.”

“He’s working on it.”

“Now I keep the figure.”

It only took that first season to convince Victor to let his whiskers reach their full potential. “The kids kept sitting on my beard and whenever they did, it kept pulling down. I said, ‘I can’t handle this. If I’m going to do the part, I might as well play the part,’” he says, peering over the rim of his glasses resting low on his nose, his wavy, blonde-tinged beard fluffed around his face.

He’s been the Santa at the Amarillo Bulls games since the team was called the Gorillas. At one particular game close to Christmas, the Gorillas provided pizza and beverages to underprivileged children and Victor made a point to spend time with every child. There were at least 200 children.

“Kids,” he pauses. “It’s not for the money as much as it is for the kids. I’ve had a lot of good experiences with kids. The little ones, it’s toys or dolls, but the older ones, the parents are pushing them to Santa Claus and they go over there and of course I ask them the same question, ‘What do you want for Christmas?’ The first one caught me off guard. The first one, a girl, said, ‘I want a life.’”

Three more adolescents asked for the same thing, so Victor was prepared. “Listen, I’m going to tell you something,” he told them. “Your parents are doing their best and they are teaching you what life is about.”

Victor and Sharron strive to make a child believe. At Specialized Therapy Services a few years back, one child feared Santa and Mrs.
Claus and didn’t want anything to do with the magical couple. But the next year, that same girl approached them.

“That’s one of things that makes it all worth it,” Sharron says, not taking her eyes off her feverish fingers as she crochets a multi-colored hat.

One of Victor’s most treasured memories as Santa Claus was with a 90-year-old woman he encountered. She approached him in a motorized scooter and confided she had never had her picture taken with Santa. When Victor brought the picture over to her, tears streamed down her face.

“Christmas is so commercialized and we’ve gotten away from what it’s all about,” Sharron expresses. “The kids, all they think about are the toys and gifts… When you have somebody like that little lady who had never had her picture made with Santa, now that to me, that’s as much what it’s about as it is about the birth of Jesus Christ.”

Christmastime also stirs up tender memories of Victor’s stepdaughter. Before passing away in 2002, just one year before Victor grew out his beard, she listened to Christmas music every single year, all 365 days. “I think she’d be very happy with me now,” he says.

“She was 26 and she still believed,” Sharron adds.

Q&A with Kris Kringle

Amarillo Magazine: Santa is a year-round job it seems. Do you ever take a vacation?
Kris Kringle: Yes we do.

AM: Where do you go?
KK: We can’t tell you. We’re incognito.

AM: How do you keep your beard so clean and kempt?
KK: It’s very hard. It’s a daily wash, and I’ve got an excellent barber (pointing to Mrs. Claus). She keeps it trimmed up for me and I give it one heavy trim right after Christmas.

AM: What Christmas carol gets you in the holiday spirit?
KK: “Hark! The Herald the Angels Sing.”

AM: Chocolate chip or sugar cookies?
KK: I like any kind of cookies. Once and a while I’ll get some cookies that are half cooked, and those are my favorite because the dough is still gooey. If they’re going to be cooked all the way through, it doesn’t make any difference if they’re black, burnt. There’s not any crumbs left if they’re burnt.

AM: Do you have a favorite reindeer?
KK: Well, Rudolph, I guess. He’s the most mischievous. I spend more time with him. He’s always pulling something. He’s good about getting the other reindeer in trouble.

AM: Is the old saying true about naughty children receiving lumps of coal?
KK: We try to stay away from that part because really, it’s not true. I haven’t found any really bad kids. There are a few that are very mischievous and they may not get exactly everything they want. But they’re good kids.

AM: What do you do for the other 364 days of the year?
KK: A lot of elves to take care of. They’re the ones that make the toys, so you always have to oversee.

AM: What’s it like shimmying down a chimney?
KK: (Sighs) Very dirty. I wish there were more chimney sweepers in town. You get stuck every once and a while.

AM: It must be pretty exhausting delivering presents all over the world on Christmas Eve. How do you kick back and relax the following day?
KK: Sleep. I go back in my little room and forget I’m even
there. That’s usually the day the elves get a break and party.

AM: What are some of your and Mrs. Claus’s hobbies outside
Santa’s Workshop?
KK: Hockey games. We like to go to New Mexico and Oklahoma to the casinos.

AM: What would you like to say to all the children out there
eager for Christmas morning?
KK: I’ll be watching. That’s what I tell every kid I see.

************************************************************************************

Raymond Hill, or Santa Ray, is dashing in his deep red, velvet suit with gold buttons engraved with leaping reindeer, modeled after the 1950s era Santa. His business card says, “Your home. Your tree. Not the mall.”

“Show me a picture of a smiling Santa at the mall,” he proposes. “There are very few of them. I’m not a mall Santa. I don’t want to be a mall Santa. I like doing home visits and organizations.”

Last season, Santa Ray stopped by at least 43 events, and this year he’s already pretty much booked. For the second year in a row, he will ride as the Santa in the Electric Light Parade, which just so happened to be on his bucket list. Being a Macy’s Santa is on there, too, and so is Santa School. He visits schools during the day, such as Carver Early Childhood Academy, Western Plateau Elementary School and Bushland Elementary School, where one of his nine grandchildren attends. He has to run from one event to the next in costume, and almost always gets stopped by a curious bystander.

“Excuse me. I misspoke. I don’t have a costume. I have a suit,” he casually smiles.

It was 1998 when for some reason or another, Ray decided to bleach his dark brown hair. From there, he bought a Santa suit at a salvage store, and that was that. The character was born. Ray only started working commercially five years ago. He and his wife, Jean Ann, volunteer at multiple institutions around Amarillo, including BSA Hospice and BSA Pediatrics and the Eveline Rivers Project.

“It’s more than just putting a hat on,” Ray says, wearing a red shirt and straw hat adorned with a sprig of holly, one of his many festive hats. If he’s not in his straw hat, you can bet he’s wearing a red baseball cap. He even has his own sleigh he and Mrs. Claus ride in, and a Santa chair.

Seeing the children smile brings Santa Ray and his Mrs. Claus the most joy. They know children expect anta every year and the thought of letting them down is heart wrenching. That’s why four years ago, Ray organized a network of Santas in the area to substitute when one Santa is unavailable.

“If you put the suit on, we’ve got something in common,” he begins. “It doesn’t matter if you have a real cheap suit or a real expensive suit, if you’ve got the suit on with a beard, you’re Santa. Children normally don’t see color or race. They just see Santa.”

Ray finds visiting school children most thorny because they always ask for the latest technology and electronics, an iPad, an iPhone, an Xbox, etc. Ray knows the likelihood of gifts under the tree being these luxury items is slim, so he tells the children Santa can only obtain a limited number of these products and cannot deliver every one you want. But there is one thing he will not stuff in his bag.

“I don’t deliver live animals!” he bellows in all seriousness, crossing his arms over his starched red shirt. They make too big of a mess in the sleigh.”

Q&A with Santa Ray

Amarillo Magazine: Santa is a year-round job it seems. Do you ever take a vacation?
Santa Ray: We come to Amarillo. That’s why you see me in July. We have a summer home in Amarillo.

AM: How old are you? Or are you not allowed to reveal your age?
SR: Sure, I’ve been around forever. Hundreds of years!

AM: How do you save room for all the cookies?
SR: I’m the new, leaner Santa. You save up for Christmas Eve so you can eat and eat and eat.

AM: Do you actually like milk that much?
SR: Hmm, I do love coffee. But on Christmas Eve, I’ll take milk and cookies.

AM: How do you keep your beard so clean and kempt?
SR: Some days it requires going to the restroom to get the spaghetti sauce out of it… Ho, ho, ho. Lots of conditioner and lots of mustache wax to keep the ends curled up.

AM: What do you do for the other 364 days of the year?
SR: Make toys. Train reindeer. Got a lot of flight training to get in.

AM: How you do really fit all those presents in one bag?
SR: Magic. The same way I get down chimneys. Christmas magic. That bothers a lot of children when they don’t have a chimney. I’ve got the magic key that unlocks doors. I have a big brass key. I’m trying to figure out a way to attach it to my belt without it banging me or the children.

AM: Is the old saying true about naughty children receiving lumps of coal?
SR:No, coal’s too expensive these days. Ho, ho, ho. I always tell them, remember if you stop believing, you get underwear or socks. And if you don’t know, you get socks, plain white socks.

AM: Is red really your favorite color?
SR: Sure. It really is.

AM: Are you on Facebook or Twitter?
SR:Just Facebook as Santa Ray.

AM: Do you have a favorite reindeer?
SR: Well, Rudolph, naturally. He helps me get through those dark nights.

AM: What would you like to say to all the children out there eager for Christmas morning?
SR: It’s about trying to be good all the time, not necessarily being good all the time. It’s trying to be good.

by Drew Belle Zerby

After graduating from LSU in 2009, Drew Belle worked as a page designer in north Louisiana until moving to Amarillo and joining AGN Media in late 2010. In her spare time, she loves to read, travel and spout out useless movie trivia.
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