12/24/13 — Santa's helpers enjoy holiday

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Santa's helpers enjoy holiday

By Josh Ellerbrock
Published in News on December 24, 2013 1:46 PM

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Santa Claus, a.k.a. Eric Roughton, says he has to be prepared for children's tough questions.

Some are born Santas; and some have the role of Santa thrust upon them, but each knows spreading holiday cheer is Job 1, especially if you are going to help the real Jolly Old Elf out at his busiest time of the year.

Local Santas come in all shapes, creeds and colors. Some are amateurs. Others are professional. They can specialize in house visits, parades or the standard sit-on-the-lap. Some are just one-time deals while others have decades of experience.

Berkeley Mall's Santa is hired out from Ohio. The Wayne County Public Library's Santa is a one-and-done young volunteer. Wayne County Public Schools doesn't have a standard Santa. Any visits are organized by individual schools. The Goldsboro Parks and Recreation Dept. gets its Santa out of Wilson.

Goldsboro's Christmas Parade's Santa is played by Jeff Hancock. He has held the position since 2002, and before that, he worked at the Waynesborough village during the historical site's Christmas celebration.

"I want to give back to the kids and make the kids feel that Santa Claus is a kind-hearted giving person," he said.

Hancock's love of Santa Claus stems from his love of Christmas. Even as a very young child, Hancock had been into the holiday season, and today he brings his enthusiasm into his role as Santa Claus.

"I wanted to put some enthusiasm into it and be myself and let the kids know that Santa Claus loves them," he said.

His enthusiasm for the role, however, used to get Hancock in trouble. In years past, Hancock's Santa would often leave the horse-drawn carriage to greet the crowd and hug the children. Then the horse-drawn carriage left him. He had to run back, and he missed some children who wanted hugs.

The following year he was told to stay in the carriage for insurance reasons. To make sure children are still involved, he brings a deserving child with him on the carriage ride.

"I put in myself the love for Christmas and try to present that love for Christmas and for Santa Claus to the children," he said.

"I don't want the spirit of Christmas to die. I see it possibly happening, and I want to see Christmas continue."

Unlike Hancock, Gary Patterson didn't look to be Santa Claus. It just kind of happened. Patterson was asked to volunteer as Santa Claus during the Empty Stocking Fund party after his predecessor retired. It's the only event he plays Santa.

"I try to listen to the children. I am very attentive to them. A lot of times, by listening to them, you find out what they want. It makes them feel special. That's what I try to do," he said.

Patterson also got his wife, Phyllis, involved as the Mrs. Claus.

"I enjoy it. I feel as if I'm paying it forward. My wife and myself do a lot of volunteer work. We like the idea of trying to help others without being on the payroll," he said.

"Some of the comments from the kids, some are amusing. Some of them are really heart-wrenching. One of the kids, when I asked 'What would you like for Christmas?' he said 'I dont' want anything, I just want some help for my mom.' Comments like that really, really make you glad that you're doing this."

Neither Patterson nor Hancock use their own beard or bulk as Santa Claus. Eric Roughton, however, uses his bulk, but not his beard, because at 19 years old, he's barely old enough to grow one.

Roughton, a Mount Olive College student, has more than 40 visits planned this holiday season as Santa Claus in his hometown of Columbia. He's been playing the role of Santa since the age of 17 when he first donned the red costume during a high school choir concert, and he has made the role his calling in life. He currently attends the MOC as a business major and plans to open up his own Christmas store.

But his interest in Santa Claus began when he was very young.

"I thought it would be pretty cool to go be Santa Claus and dress up for kids," he said. "They look up to him to make everything better."

"He's more than a guy just flying reindeer," he said.

Roughton hasn't yet attended a Santa Claus school, but it is on his "to-do" list. He's currently making plans to potentially go to a Santa Claus conference in Tennessee next August.

But there are some dangers of being a costumed Kris Kringle.

Like all of "Santa's helpers," Roughton sometimes gets a smart aleck on his lap smart enough to question the cultural icon who is Santa Claus.

"You have to be quick-minded because you have to know how to respond to them," he said.

Sometimes, children will ask how Santa will get into the child's house since they don't have a chimney. Roughton then pulls out a sparkly "magical" key.

Or other times, they figure out that Roughton's beard isn't real. For those children, Roughton has a story about how Santa gave him a sacred duty as one of Santa's special advisers because Santa is getting too old to be doing the grunt work. The Jolly Old Elf's assignment came on the day that Roughton was born.

"(Santa) isn't really a person, but a symbol of Christmas," Roughton said.

To reiterate his point, Roughton turned to a quote from Charles Howard, one of the first year-round Santa Clauses.

"Maybe if all children and adults understand the symbolism of (Santa) we can actually attain peace on earth and good will to men everywhere," Roughton recited.