From his head down to his feet, Chuck Lee is the mirror image of Santa Claus. He has the beard, the laugh and the smile to backup the outfit.
But to Lee becoming Santa is not just simply putting on a coat, a pair of boots and a fuzzy hat. Santa to Lee is a counselor and an ambassador. He provides a listening ear, kind words, and understanding to children and adults that come to see him at an event or walk up to him in a parking lot of a supermarket.
The importance of showing somebody they matter and they’re cared for is a lesson not been lost the Ovilla resident. Lee works to promote this spirit of goodwill throughout the year by taking on the cheery role.
“I didn’t grow up in a great family. I was one of four boys. Without getting into details, it was a dysfunctional family before everybody grew up in a dysfunctional family. Now every family has issues. This was in the 1950s and 1960s when people turned their heads and whatever happened in the home, happened in the home. So one of the outcomes of that was holidays were turmoil,” Lee said. “I can remember as a little boy sitting around with friends and everybody was talking about what they wanted to be when they grew up. I remember that I wanted to be Santa and make toys and live at the North Pole. I think that some of that was I wanted to live at the North Pole rather than where I was. It was my earliest positive memory of a holiday — wanting to grow up and be Santa.”
Lee said he saw Santa as a person who had unconditional love and acceptance and not a person who was a giver of gifts. Growing up, Lee’s family lived in a middle-class neighborhood and never was left wanting. But the thing he was looking for the most was acceptance, which later became the biggest challenge he had to overcome, Lee said.
“I was told that I could never be anything. I was not smart enough. I was not creative enough. There was not a lot of positive reinforcement there. So that unconditional love that I was looking for is how I pictured Santa,” Santa said. “We are all full of letters today. You are ADD. You’re dyslexic today. You’re OCD. You have all of these things. But when I was growing up, you were just, ‘Oh, that is not a smart kid,’ or whatever. I learned that as I beginning to understand and function with who I was, I learned to work around challenges and begin to learn, ‘Wow, I could learn to do things.’”
That motivation drove Lee to become a licensed plumber in seven states down the east coast and Texas. It also drove him to make custom banjos though his woodworking shop, ultimately forming the Chuck Lee Banjo Company. It was not until his parents passed away that the idea of taking on this iconic role of Santa came to the forefront.
“After they passed, I wanted to remake holidays. Even into adulthood, as I go into fall, I would kind of get a constant upset stomach through Easter. There was always going to be some major family catastrophic event and constant turmoil through Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years. I told my wife that I wanted to remake Christmas, and I was going to start with Christmas and that I was gong to be Santa Claus,” Lee said. “My wife is an encourager and challenges people to be everything that they could be. So her response in almost all of my crazy ideas is to go for it. So that very first year, right after my father died in 2011, was my first Santa season. I had a fantastic time.”
BECOMING KRIS KRINGLE
Prior to taking on the role full-time, he always acknowledged he had a connection with Santa.
“I have always had a beard of one type or another, and it has always been kind of longish and it was quite gray. I used to wear a Santa hat in November and December just for fun and children would stop me in the parking lot and talk to me. I would play along and what not,” Lee said. “The moms would be in the background with the big grins and would be saying, ‘Oh thank you, thank you.’ My idea is that if a child stops me and speaks to me, they get 100 percent of my attention. It is part of my worldview. If a child makes contact with me, I want them to know that they are special. I want to leave them with the belief that the world cares about them.”
As time progressed, Lee gained more experience and became more comfortable in his role. Throughout the holiday season, he makes appearances at many different events and venues. From small office parties to meet-and-greets, to serving as Santa in Waxahachie’s annual Christmas parade and tree lighting, he has even played Santa for few car commercials that aired in Canada. One of his most memorable assignments was playing Santa at the Plaza at Preston Center in Dallas the past few years.
“The Plaza at Preston Center is set up and you come and photos are a donation. So as they come through the line, the staff gathers information. As they come up, the staff talks to me in through an earpiece. My hat hangs down over it. They will say something like ‘The little boy in the blue sweater. His name is Tommy and his favorite gift from last year was a train and his sister in the red dress is Susie.’ They give me more than I can take in,” Lee said. “When it is time for the next group to come up, I will say ‘Tommy, Susie comes on over.’ They are standing there saying, ‘Mom, he knows my name.’ The parents are in on it to create that magic.”
Lee said every child he visits with presents a new set of challenges. Some might be full of questions or have a list.
“It is a lot of fun because you do get a cross section between the child that won’t stop talking about what they want for Christmas. You ask ‘What do you want for Christmas?’ and they pull this list out and the big pictures cut out from the magazine and everything and start telling you about it. All the way to the child who says you know as sincerely as they can be, “I really have everything I need. Would you do something for a friend? Would you bring my friend a doll?’ Or ‘Could you take the presents that you were going to give me and give them to children who might not have any,’” Lee said. “ So when I have a child on my lap, their goal is to tell me what they want for Christmas. My goal is to find out how they are interacting in school, how they are interacting with their family and what are they doing to help other people.”
Lee said children would often question him to test whether he is the real Santa Claus. Other times, they might look under his hat to see if there is a strap holding his beard in place.
Then, there are difficult situations not as light hearted. Each situation has to be handled with care when it presents itself, he said.
“It is really an active listening process. Because you never know, one child might say, ‘Well, I want my Daddy back?’ Ok? What is going on? You don’t say that exactly. Did Daddy leave? Did Daddy die? Is Daddy in prison? Is Daddy married to somebody else?” Lee said. “So you have got to kind of ease into those things and give them some room to talk and listen and encourage and look for what you can say.”
Lee said one particularly difficult situation was when a family came through the line at the Plaza at Preston Center, and they had just lost their father a week before.
“I was very careful in how I worded my questions and gave them an opportunity to talk. We talked a little bit about it. You kind of listen because everybody that comes through the line, they are not necessarily celebrators of Christmas from a Biblical standpoint. They could have any type of a religious background, so you have to be careful with what you say and how you respond. You let them give you cues in how to reply,” Lee said. “We got talking about their father. They were giving me the cue that they thought their father was in Heaven. We talked about that and how they were feeling.”
DRESSING THE PART
Globally, Santa is viewed in many different forms. Some Santas are more traditional with the stocking cap, the boots and the heavy wool jacket, while other Santas are styled more to the region the person portraying him is from. Lee’s Santa takes on one he can personally relate to, which an 1800s craftsman.
“People talk about what their vision of who Santa is. Some are kind of a movie star type of Santa with the really glitz type stuff. I see Santa a craftsman and I work in a little shop. His outfits are pretty plain and simple except for his fancy vest that he wears when he goes out,” Lee said. “So when I go to a home visit or visit at a business, the first thing I do is say ‘Hello,’ and ask to take off my coat. Just like any guest would do who is coming to your house. It gives a sign to all the people that a guest really came. It is not somebody in costume, but a real person who came.”
Lee said he makes all of his Santa clothes himself to add his own touch to the character and provide it with a little personality. This also helps make Santa a more realistic person that someone might see during the day.
“Being the eclectic artist and craftsman that I am, I wanted custom clothing for my Santa. So rather than ask my wife to try to sew it for me, I decided that I would like to sow. We have a room in our house called Narnia, where it is always winter and never Christmas, which is backward from the story. That is my sewing room,” Lee said. “I make all of the patterns and sow all my Santa attire, so that is what I do at night. When I get through at night at the (banjo) shop, I go in and have dinner and then I go into Narnia and work on my outfits for Santa.”
MORE THAN A JOLLY OLD MAN
Lee also has the chance to interact with other Santas from throughout the state because of his participation in the nonprofit organization Lone Star Santas. The organization is made up of men and women who portray Santa Claus, Mrs. Claus, Elves and helpers.
Lone Star Santas mission is to spread joy, love and the spirit of Christmas and enrich the Santa experiences of children of all ages and backgrounds. The group works throughout the year, and provided aid to children and families affected by the tornado in Joplin, Missouri that killed more than 100 people in 2011. They also do the Convoy of Toys run each year as well. Lee said the group provides a way for Santas to share what they have experienced throughout the season.
“There is always a Santa that has a story that you have not heard because it never fails that you cannot think of all the scenarios that might happen. We do a lot of sharing similar stories,” Lee said. “Anywhere from the people who yell at the mall,‘Hey, Santa you need to eat some more donuts. You’re not fat enough.’ Or the people who say, ‘My child cannot have that candy. It is not healthy.’ Funny things like that. You also get a lot of the emotional stories that we share after Christmas.”
Lee said some of the adults he has encountered at different events are just as excited to see Santa as the children and even have a hard time containing their excitement.
“You would be amazed at how many adults I connect with through the process of the season. When you are moving around, you interact with people. You can see somebody coming down the walkway at the shopping center. You can tell the second when they make eye contact with you. They go to a happy place,” Lee said. “Sometimes, you can tell they are dying to talk to you. And decorum says we just walk up to people and say, ‘Hey don’t you know that you look like Santa?’ But people do that. A lot of times they will come over and talk.”
Lee said gives all the credit of his Santa success to his wife Tamara, who plays Mrs. Claus at some events as well.
“She is my role model for loving unconditionally. She is a fabulous mother and grandmother,” Lee said. “When I go out and interact with people, the things I do I learned from my wife.”
Lee said he cherishes the small window of time he gets visits with people one on one.
“The most special moments for me is when I feel like I have made a difference for somebody. I feel like I connected and they go away feeling like somebody truly cared about them. For me, it is not an act. When I am able to connect like that, I really do care,” Lee said. “So often, I see the same people from year to year. That’s the special part for me — when I have made an impact and helped a child or an adult believe that somebody cares and that they can be whatever they hope to be in life. When I’m too old to truly love and pay attention to the people I am interacting with, I want to stop. Until then, I hope to do it for many years to come.”
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