Local Santas Embrace the Holiday Season
Writer / Julie Engelhardt
Did you know that we actually have Santas living right here in our neighborhoods?
Yes, the spirit of Santa (or at least his helpers) is alive and well in Louisville.
What inspires these men to take on this persona? What joy do they derive from dressing up in a red and white fur suit, listening to Christmas wishes shared by hundreds and hundreds of children?
We’ll begin our story with Santa Michael (last name omitted) in La Grange. You might have seen him zipping around town in his little red car.
He began his journey 10 years ago during a recuperation period after undergoing shoulder surgery. He grew out a white beard during his downtime, which caught the eye of his Santa friend at church.
“He asked me to cover for him one night, and I was hooked,” he says.
He is originally from the west coast, having grown up in Orange County, California. That is where his earliest memories of seeing Santa stem from.
“I remember getting our annual photo with Santa, but only from seeing the photos,” he explains.
After he and his wife Laura, who portrays Mrs. Claus, were married, they would visit Disneyland each year for Christmas to visit Santa.
“Disneyland really knows how to do Christmas,” he says.
He’s had quite a busy schedule during the holiday season. He averages about 80 visits per season, but last year his appearances were down some due to the pandemic.
“I do all events from preschools to senior citizens homes, corporate parties, fundraisers, light-up ceremonies, parades, the Polar Express experience, and visits with families,” he says. “I do ‘Light Up La Grange’ every year and always enjoy meeting all the kids from my hometown. I also do a Boys & Girls club event in Cincinnati that is well-hosted. It is always an amazing event.”
Santa Pat Meehan, also known as the Derby City Kringle, has been appearing as the big man in red since 1979.
He began his specific journey when he was asked to fill in at the Lyndon City Hall after another Santa fell ill, but it’s no surprise that he’s taken to this role so handily.
“I am a third-generation Santa,” he explains. “I have pictures of my grandfather as a natural-bearded Santa – he grew his own whiskers – in Colorado in 1955. My father was a designer-bearded Santa, using a prop beard affixed to his face, at the Louisville Central Park Santa Land in 1956. I visited my father but only recognized him after the visit.”
Meehan also keeps very busy visiting good girls and boys throughout the season. He’s been the Santa at Oxmoor Center for 23 years. He’s also appeared at the Louisville Free Public Library, ‘Light Up St. Matthews,’ 4th Street Live!, the Louisville Zoo, and the Lyndon Christmas celebration.
“My 18-month-old grandson, who was staying at my home with his parents for a number of months, came to visit me at the mall,” he says. “He did not cry but he was afraid of me.”
Tom Dobbins has been portraying Santa since 1994. He got his start as Santa when his church leaders asked him if he would make an appearance.
Dobbins takes his Santa duties quite seriously as he is a member of several Santa organizations, including the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas (FORBS) and International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas (IBRBS).
“I’ve been to two FORBS conventions in California and two IBRBS conventions in Tampa and Denver, and I am going to the Atlanta one in April,” he says.
Attendees discuss many subjects such as storytelling, the business of being Santa, and grooming.
Dobbins makes between 80 and 90 appearances each year starting in October. Like other Santas, he appears at a variety of places including Fort Knox, Lyndon, UPS, Captain’s Quarters, Mark’s Feed Store on Dixie Highway, and Kroger stores.
“I love doing restaurants because I can see if the child is nervous, and I tell the parent to stay seated,” he says. “The child can then see me with other children and then they will come to me later.”
When asked what his favorite story is to read to children, he says “The Night Before Christmas.”
His favorite cookie?
“A Tollhouse cookie that has chocolate chips and walnuts in it,” he says.
George Smithers, who lives in Clarksville, Indiana, has been portraying Santa for his family for many years.
“About five years ago during a family Christmas dinner I decided to take pictures with each family and give out gifts during the photo session,” he explains. “I took a picture with my then-84-year-old mother, who started laughing uncontrollably. I asked her what was wrong, and she stated she had never seen a black Santa. It was then I decided to go public, offering private sessions from my photography studio.”
Smithers says Christmas has always been his favorite holiday.
“Even as a child I was intrigued with Santa Claus, and when I became a dad I wanted my children to have a Santa that reflected and looked like them, so I became their personal Santa Claus,” he explains.
Through the years Smithers has traveled many miles and seen many children.
“It has been my extreme pleasure to have brought a little joy to the hearts and minds of those who still believe,” he says. “It has always been about faith, family and tradition for me and my family, and this is how I have embraced the Santa spirit of Christmas.”
Ed Hoben, known as Santa Ed, first began his portrayal of Santa when he was asked by a friend to help at a nonprofit event.
Like the other Santas, Hoben keeps very busy during the holiday season and appears at 40-plus events throughout the area. Some of his appearances include the Yew Dell Botanical Gardens, the Festival of Trees and Lights, and “Light Up St. Matthews.”
“Trees and Lights and Yew Dell are perennial favorites because they both allow sufficient time to interact with the children,” Hoben explains.
He is also a member of national organizations such as the IBRBS, Santa America, and Bluegrass Santas. He says being a member of these groups is great because it gives him the opportunity to talk with other Christmas performers, which helps with improving character actions and reactions.
Does this Santa have a favorite cookie?
“It’s oatmeal raisin this year, but Mrs. Claus says I need to cut back,” he says.
Tom Russell is a new member of the Santa team. He began portraying St. Nick just last year. His wife Lisa joined him and she is a Mrs. Claus.
“We did not plan to do this,” Russell says. “Once COVID began I told my father that this is going to last a lot longer than two weeks. I quit shaving to prove a point.”
Once the beard began to grow, Russell says those around him started to call him Santa.
“My wife bought us Santa and Mrs. Claus outfits, and before you know it we were busy every day,” he says. “We would do porch visits for friends. Then we would give candy canes to kids in cars when we pulled up to a stop. Mothers would cry because they didn’t think their kids would be able to see Santa last year.”
He is amazed at how busy they were portraying the Clauses.
“We did a visit for a friend on his front porch,” he says. “Next thing you know, 20 or 30 kids show up, giving us their list, taking pictures. It was very heartwarming.”
The Russells have several unforgettable memories from their first year.
“We would drive down the road and these teenage girls noticed us,” he says. “They started laughing and taking pictures and you could see the joy in their reactions. On another occasion, a lady got out of her car and asked us if she could video us for her child who was sick in the hospital.”
Russell is grateful for this experience, and says becoming Santa was never a planned idea.
“This is one of the chapters in your life that just happens,” he says.
His favorite cookie?
“Chocolate chip,” he says.