First Posted: 12/11/2009
LUMBERTON Stephen Pate believes he is the big guy in red. He bleaches his beard white. He listens for children to whisper Santa.
I dont play him; I am him, he said. As an actor, youve got to believe who you are. Once I put on a red shirt, Ive got to believe Im Santa Claus.
The 63-year-old doesnt just dress up as the jolly bearded guy in the red suit each year for parades, parties and mall photographs. He lives it whenever anyone believes. As he announces when he answers the phone, Santa at heart.
Even when youre not dressed in authentic costumes, as they say, youre on 24/7. Because everywhere you go, there will be children who recognize you and will say something, he said. … There is a difference between a man in a red suit whos portraying Santa Claus and a man in a red suit who thinks he is Santa Claus. In his mind, he knows hes acting but he believes.
Ricky and Jamie Parker believe, too, booking Pate each year to sit in their photography booth at Biggs Park Mall. They like Pate for his real beard, jocular personality and belly.
I always call him the real Santa because hes a great guy, Ricky said. Hes jolly. Hell even sing a song or two up there. … Sometimes hell get up there and hell be singing the whole time where theres no kids. Hell be singin Christmas songs, and he knows them all.
The Parkers hire two Santas to be at the mall from 5 to 8 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturdays and 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays. Pate cant be there for the full time as his life is hectic in the weeks before Christmas. But he always takes time to talk with people and pose for photographs, even bulldogs who drool on his suit.
He spends some good time with them, Ricky said. He talks to them. Me, Im ready to take the photograph and get to the next one.
Being Santa means thinking fast. What if Pate loses his way as he travels to a party on Christmas Eve and stops to ask for directions?
Then youre having to explain why youre in the store at 10 oclock and you locked your keys in the car, he said.
What if he attends a brunch Christmas morning? People ask, why are you here? Because dinner is later, he says.
My wife had told me that things would be ready at 6 p.m. and to get out of her hair, he said.
He circulates at parties, posing for photos and answering questions as people fire them.
You see how the people respond, he said. Its a ball. You get tired, but its a ball.
For 23 years, Pate has been riding the high of being Santa. In the off season, Pate, who retired from Circuit City, works odd jobs. Then he pulls out one of his eight costumes and returns as Santa.
Its the pleasure you have from the things that are the best parts of it, he said.
The hugs, the smiles, the laughs, the reactions from children are like a drug.
Thats euphoria, man, that takes away all the pain in the world thats happened to you, he said. I get high on childrens reactions.
Being Santa has its downers, too: Hecklers, impatient parents, babies wearing dirty diapers, kicking and crying children, and those who say Youre not real.
Sometimes I give them a candy cane and say, Youre not serious, now go on down the hallway, Pate said. … This is for kids who are serious about wanting to tell me and if thats not what youre here for, you need to move along.
He listens to whatever children want to tell him or ask of him for Christmas. Some children ask for a parent who is deceased, incarcerated, deployed or otherwise absent. He will not promise them.
Well, well just have to hope for the best, he tells them. If I know that theyre receptive, I say, We can pray about it.
To requests for pets and cell phones, he defers to parents. Telling the child that he will add a cell phone to the list but you know Mom and Dad will have to pay for the minutes.
A diabetic who takes a medication that weakens his immune system, Pate risks illness each season. Parents will keep a sick child home from school then bring her to see Santa, Pate said. Feeling pretty miserable, he still goes to work.
There are days when you dont have anyone to relieve you, so you have to go and try to make it, he said. Your head may be splittin wide open and you dont feel like Santa Claus, you have to do a lot of pretending. Thats when the acting comes in.
The musical South Pacific turned Pate into Santa. He played Cmdr. Harbison and a singing sailor in the 1973 production. According to Pate, it was the first to be held at Givens Performing Arts Center in Pembroke.
After I heard the applause, the laughs and the giggles and all from the audience, I was hooked to do theater, he said.
He worked with Robeson Little Theater and Strike at the Wind! in Robeson County, before moving to Greensboro where he joined the community theater. In 1986, a manager from Four Seasons Town Centre asked the troupe if someone would portray various Santa figures at the mall. Pate signed up.
For years, he brought the legends of St. Nick, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, Pere Noel, Sinterklaas, Dun Che Lao Ren, and Santa Claus to life at the mall and schools where he talked about his character.
In order to do these roles, I did a lot of research so I would know what I was talking about, he said.
He practiced accents. As Frances Pere Noel, he learned some phrases in French, which was great until I ran into some children who spoke French.
They started asking me questions in French and I had to say, Well, youve got me there, he said.
He most often plays the rotund, bearded man drawn by Thomas Nast and popularized by Coca-Cola. He wears a long coat from his collection of homemade and Old World costumes.
Im very meticulous about my look, he said. Im concerned if my hair starts sticking out and not looking neat.
Even without the costume, he never forgets the legend he represents. When he goes out wearing a red shirt, like a celebrity, he knows that somewhere a child will see him and whisper: Santa?