photograph by Jerry Wolford & Scott Muthersbaugh

Santa’s Helpers series: His numbers are legion, this Christmas figure and personality so familiar to young and old — merry, red-suited, white-bearded, bearing gifts, and ho-ho-hoing — but his intention is single-minded and, for these North Carolina Santa Clauses, single-hearted. They know their actual identities don’t matter, as long as they embody the true spirit of Christmas. Join us as we share the stories of eight North Carolina Santa’s Helpers. 

Al Capehart, Pittsboro

If you’ve ever wondered whether Santa Claus does yoga, the answer is yes, for 30 minutes a day. If you’ve ever wondered what Santa considers really rude, it’s this: pulling on his beard to see if it’s fake — or worse, instructing your child to do so. And if you’ve ever wondered whether Santa gets a kick out of pretty ladies at the mall asking to sit on his knee, the answer is: Nope. And, yes, he calls all girls “Sweetheart,” and all boys “Son.”

At 79, and after 25 years of Santa-ing, Al Capehart has been around the Santa block a time or two, and tells all in his book Behind Santa’s Smile. From the time it takes to get dressed for a gig, to the miracles of wishes — for a boyfriend; for a new house; and always, always, for more Legos — coming true, Santa Al reveals the ordinary and the magical about the calling to be a Claus. “It’s such a big responsibility and challenge to make sure a child keeps believing, to share the mystery and power of belief,” Capeheart says. Yet, like many of the Santas in these pages, Capehart finds great pleasure in watching adults, whose “hearts will open” as they witness his interactions and conversations with children, which range from the practical (“But if you get a musical instrument, do you have a place to practice?”) to the philosophical (“Santa loves all his boys and girls, and wants good things for you”). Seeing is believing.

Cliff Snider: Santa of the Long Leaf Pine

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Susan Stafford Kelly was raised in Rutherfordton. She attended UNC-Chapel Hill and earned a Master of Fine Arts from Warren Wilson College. She is the author of Carolina Classics, a collection of essays that have appeared in Our State, and five novels: How Close We Come, Even Now, The Last of Something, Now You Know, and By Accident. Susan has three grown children and lives in Greensboro with her husband, Sterling.