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It’s Strange, Meeting Santa

Dec 2 2013

by Anna Ferguson Hall

It was strange, honestly, to sit across the table in a small-town coffee shop, interviewing the man known as Santa Claus. Or St. Nick. Or St. Nicholas, if you want to get formal. But, there he sat, in his jeans, flannel shirt and tan boots. His beard wasn’t as large as I imagined it might be, but it was certainly white, and puffy, and Santa-y.

Yes, several weeks ago, I sat down with Gene Murrell (who, every years portrays Santa Claus at various community events and gatherings) for an assignment from Golden Isles Magazine (you can read it here). I picked his brain, striving to understand how, why and when he went from being a cop and security man with the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, to being Jolly Ol’ St. Nick. At first, it seemed like an uneven shift, going from law enforcement to being Santa. But once you think about it, the whole transition makes complete sense. Really, Santa is that force in the Universe, who works to keep his audience on the right path. Do good, and you’ll be rewarded. Do bad, well, looks like it’ll be a lump of coal for Christmas. That same idea is in play: the Santa-making-his-list theory is similar to the whole cop-watching-out-for-bad-guys theory. Do good, stay off the enemies list. Do bad, well, it’s worse than a lump of coal for you.

But nonetheless, as a 30-year-old journalist, who knows the whole Santa thing is more myth than magical holiday miracle, it’s a bit strange sitting across the table from a man who has played Santa for years. It is admittedly weird to sit across the table from a man who has convinced hundreds, perhaps thousands, of children, that he is the real deal magical holiday miracle. Those are impressive boots to fill. And Mr. Murrell fills them well.

Even during our interview, held in early autumn, before Christmas or even Thanksgiving were mere thoughts in most parents’ minds, this appearance by Santa seemed to throw several youngsters into a tizzy. Tykes tottered over near our table as they slowly followed their parents to the ordering counter. Those thoughts of their hot chocolates, their hot ciders and their sweet pastry snacks quickly left their young minds, once they saw Santa being interviewed in the far right corner.

Talking with Murrell, it turns out that he is regularly asked about his Santa-like appearance. In the summer, when his beard is smaller and his North Pole notoriety should be long gone, he still gets stopped in the grocery store, with moms, dads and kiddos asking: “I just have to ask—are you Santa? Because if you aren’t, you sure could be. But really, are you?”

It happens often, Santa told me, that parents get questions from their kids, who then force the adults to ask the question. More often than not, though, he admits, it seems like the parents are just as curious. This much was evident during our recent interview. After we finished talking, after my pen was down and my notebook closed, Santa left the island coffee shop. He shook my hand, closed the door and drove off in his large, white Chevy truck.

But behind him, a trail of curious eyes followed. Children ran to the windows of the coffee shop, watching to see if the would-be Santa took off in a sleigh. (For the record, his large four-door truck could replace a sleigh, if need be.) They watched, wondering if they had, for real, seen the Real Man in Red. They then took back to their tables, their eyes looking in question to their guardians.

Was that really Santa? Is he really real? They looked longingly for these answers, though none dared to actually speak the questions. Maybe it was better for them to not know either way. It seemed, too, as if the parents were wondering the same things. That holiday spirit, that wanderlust, to believe in a generous man with reindeer and wish lists, was it real?

After interviewing the man who seasonally claims to be Santa, I can’t answer these questions. There really seems no need to find a solution. Real or imagined, the idea and the story, they both seem nice. They both seem comforting. And sometimes, that’s enough to believe in.

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