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. 

Warren Keyes, Raleigh

“I really am Santa,” Warren Keyes, 62, says matter-of-factly. “I’m typically a jovial fellow, and Santa-esque all year long.” His goal — as Santa or in his day job as a customer relationships account manager — is to make sure people are happy. “There’s a mind-set that comes with this role,” he says, then muses — and chuckles, in a distinctly Santa-esque manner — “mind-set or madness?”

Keyes was first noticed as a Santa dead-ringer by a photographer at a wedding. Six months later, the photographer saw him again, at Crabtree Valley Mall in Raleigh around Christmastime, and ran Keyes down. Turns out the photographer was also a Santa “handler,” who became Keyes’s coach, teaching him skills, like how to slow down your speech and speak to a child as Santa.

While Keyes has been a Santa helper for only four years, something more important than longevity distinguishes him from other Santas. “I’m a darker-hued Santa,” he says gently. Which means that when he visits the Hayti Heritage Center, in a predominantly black neighborhood of Durham, not only are the children amazed, but their parents are, too. “Here they are, late in life, thinking back to their childhoods, when Santa was only white.” Now, people make the trip from Raleigh, Fayetteville, and elsewhere to pay a visit to Keyes’s Santa — if not exactly to sit on his lap, then to appreciate that Santa isn’t always blue-eyed and fair-skinned.

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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.