For most of his early adult life, a holiday season highlight for Bruce Stauffer was getting together with his family on Christmas Eve in Sabina and singing songs and playing instruments.
“Once my parents passed away Christmas became a downer,” the Leesburg resident said. “But playing Santa Claus brought back the realization that it’s just not about me. It’s about doing things for others and by doing that, it made my sad time become one of the happier times, and from then on it’s been a blast.”
It all started 26 years ago when his wife, Terri, came home from Fairfield Elementary where she volunteered and asked if he would be Santa for his oldest son’s kindergarten class.
“I was fairly fit, not a single white hair on my head, could not grow facial hair, and was preaching at the Leesburg Church of Christ,” Stauffer, now a computer programmer for R&L Carriers, said. “I did not want to do it, but agreed on the condition that I got the class picture and all of the children’s names. The day came and when I came out and started calling the children by name and praising some of them for things I had seen them do — they believed and I was hooked!”
There have been a few years since then when he did not play Santa. But pretty much except for that first time, if he has been Santa, his wife has been Mrs. Santa, giving him hints that help kids believe he’s the real thing.
“She talks to the parents and the kids, learning their names and ideas about things to talk about, and then when the kids approach me she says something like, “Santa, Johnny is here.’”
Over the years they have played Santa and Mrs. Claus on visits to private homes, for Highland County MRDD, for the Leesburg Luminaria, at Skyline Chili, schools and lots of breakfast with Santa events. Last year they played the part for more than 1,000 children.
“And I wish I could tell you about each of them. There are kids that are teens now who have seen me as Santa from birth,” Stauffer said. “I had the opportunity last year of holding and having my picture taken with babies under 48 hours old and still in the hospital. I have had children ask for four-wheelers, iPhones, shotguns and computers. I have also had children that asked for a glove — because they only had one — or for their Mom to be happy again.
“We’ve seen ones that make you smile because they’re so happy to be there, and ones so scared they want nothing do with you.”
His favorite part of the gig, Stauffer said, started about five years ago.
“When our visit is wrapping up, I tell the child I need one thing. They look at me rather suspiciously at that point. Then I say, ‘I need a hug.’ Some of those hugs last only a second or two, but many of them stretch on and on into my memory forever.”
Stauffer said he does not plan to stop playing Santa anytime soon. In fact, he said he hopes in the future to run electricity into a shed where he can build handmade Christmas gifts for children.
“If you ever have the chance to play Santa, take my advice and be Santa. Get down on the ground and hug a child,” he said. “Call each one by name and while you are at it, learn the ‘Elf on the Shelf’ lore and maybe even walk down a toy aisle at Walmart to learn what the hot toys for the year are.”
It has been a different kind of year, but Stauffer said Christmas is still coming, and despite whatever limitations COVID-19 might present, everyone should try to make the best of their situation.
“This year has been hard on kids. If you are going to be Santa, meet outside. Take off your white gloves and sanitize them after each visit. Use hand sanitizer, wear a mask as much as possible, but understand, a 4-year-old is not going to socially distance and may need that contact now more than ever,” Stauffer said.
“Christmas will be different this year. More lights, less get togethers. More buying online and less caroling and parties,” he added. “My pictures wearing a mask just look weird. But there is one thing about Christmas that will not be changing. It is the time of year where we all need to sit back and remember that God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son to us. Born a lowly birth, rejected by all mankind, crucified, resurrected, ascended on high and reigning to this day, Jesus Christ is the reason for the season.
“God bless you one and all, and may you have the very merriest Christmas of all.”
Reach Jeff Gilliland at 937-402-2522.