I walk into Rafferty’s and approach the hostess desk, informing them that I have a meeting with Santa. I am pointed in his direction without much hesitation, and he isn't difficult to spot. He wears a traditional Santa hat, and his coat is draped over a chair next to him. We exchange a firm and welcoming handshake as I pull up my chair. I take in the details of his extravagant red and gold paisley vest and a vintage cream shirt, along with his red pants and bells on his boots. I am impressed with his attire. It is classic but also unique.
As we get comfortable near the fire, Santa begins telling me about his busy schedule that began November 1. He lists several events and organizations where he made appearances in his red suit and fluffy white beard, which I am happy to note is authentic. Santa is not only here for the youngsters but for a variety of folks. He visits Gold’s Gym for the body builders, Tail Wagger'z for the fluffy animals, and assisted living homes for those who need a jolly guest. Every year he rings the bell for the Salvation Army, claiming no one can pass up the bucket without dropping some change when Santa is watching. I am fascinated when he tells me about the personal home visits. One family picks him up away from their home so that it seems that he has arrived riding his sleigh pulled by reindeer. Another family with a baker mom trades him a cake for his visit. He has been visiting one particular family for eight consecutive years, watching the children grow. This Santa is dedicated and genuine.
Santa’s schedule is so busy that he books some appearances a year in advance. And we all know Santa can handle a hectic schedule, but what about the man behind the beard? What about John Singleton? His wife of eighteen years describes it like being with a movie star. Whether they are eating at a restaurant or just simply in public, her husband’s jolly belly and cloud-white beard are immediately recognized. While the Christmas season is a joyous one, it is also exhausting. John expresses his anticipation of December 25 not because of opening gifts but for the much-needed rest. He works anywhere from eight- to twelve-hour days, most often arriving home after his wife is in bed. Santa is not invincible. Like all of us, he needs the comfort of home and family.
Prior to settling in Jackson in 1980, John was in the army during the Vietnam War where he served as military police assigned to guard generals. Soon after he mentions this, I notice that he is wearing his dog tags. He served two years and became a sergeant before leaving to go to college. Starting college, he studied history but then questioned what would he do with the degree if he did not become a teacher. He then switched his major to real estate and entered the workforce as a realtor until the mid 1970's. John then worked in retail for various companies including General Shoe Co., JCPenny, and Goldsmith’s. Through the years he has also done landscaping and painting.
The story of John Singleton as Santa, however, begins eleven years ago while he worked part-time at Sears. A pair of photographers approached him asking if he would be interested in being their Santa. The photographers claimed that their current Santa was becoming old and cranky. (Who wants a cranky Santa?) John accepted the offer and began the task of growing his beard.
For eleven years, John has been Santa Claus, and he does it well. As with any business, there is competition. For example, once he was the hired Santa for the Jackson Symphony for an evening, but evidently another Santa was present in the crowd wearing a suit and his pointy red hat. This Santa was recognized during the concert, a proud “Glad to see Santa here” being shouted from the stage. After noticing the imposter, John later introduced himself as the “real Santa” to the crowd.
He continues to tell me how he handles multiple Santa situations to prevent confusing the little ones. While attending a certain event at a local church, a dad came dressed as Santa. John quickly informed any curious children that the other Santa was simply his helper. He is clever and also considerate.
All throughout our conversation I notice kids walking by, either acting shy or waving with excitement at Santa sitting in the same restaurant as them. A few approach him with parents taking pictures. I quietly ask about the kids who don’t believe—the ones who question his identity. His response to past inquisitors has been, “Do I look like the real Santa?” After spending only seconds with John, any person would answer, “Yes!”
As we chat, a child comes forward to test Santa. “What’s my name?” he asks. John quickly responds, “I’ll know if you tell me.” The boy smiles, and after a few more words lets down his guard. Santa inquires of the boy’s wishes for Christmas, which include a electric helicopter and a toy car. He nods, asking for details, curious about the child’s specific wants and personality—not only a list of items. John informs me that he does research on the current toy trends so that he can relate to the children and understand their lists. He says Disney’s Frozen was popular this year. And sure enough, soon after he gives me this fact a young girl approaches asking for an Elsa doll. Santa knows his stuff! He takes his job seriously in order to do it well.
I ask him what his most memorable request was. He tells me about a few kids who requested robotic vacuums to clean their rooms. Others asked to spend Christmas with their dads that may be in prison. One child asked for his “Memaw,” and John, confused, inquired of the dad what the child meant. The father explained that the child’s grandmother had died fairly recently. John realized that even as Santa he could not grant this request. Like many of us, Santa wants to grant every wish, but it simply isn't possible.
During our conversation, I feel as though I am sitting with my grandfather, sharing his war stories and memories throughout the years. It turns out that Santa is a real man who does not live at the North Pole but calls Jackson home. He prefers M&M cookies, likes Rudolph, and he orders his steak medium. He owns a small business and is married. Santa is John Singleton.
I’ve learned that probably the most important part of being Santa is not the songs or the gifts or even the beard, but it is listening to those who come forward with requests. Like both Santa and the Christ our Christmas celebrates, may we all invite those that have wants, needs, or desires to comfortably open up to us, sharing the things that are important to their hearts. Merry Christmas, Jackson!
Anthony Kirk wears the Starbucks green apron keeping Jackson caffeinated. When not connecting with coffee shop goers he’s reading a book by a campfire or getting lost on his bike riding the back roads of Madison County. Anthony lives in Jackson’s historical LANA neighborhood appreciating its comfort and classic feel. Admiring folks like Bonhoeffer, Donald Miller, and Jimmy Fallon, he knows that people have names as well as phenomenal stories. May those stories be told well and promote community.