After more than a decade, dancing Santa retires (Video)
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"Oh, Christmas isn't just a day; it's a frame of mind. ... And that's what's been changing. That's why I'm glad I'm here. Maybe I can do something about it."
Kris Kringle in "Miracle on 34th Street"
SEADRIFT - He watched the man in the big red suit and fake white whiskers move the children through like toys on an assembly line as Christmas music jangled through mall speakers.
It seemed like such a mercenary enterprise, Kenneth Reese thought. How could children have faith in such a Santa?
"I can do better," he thought. "I can be a better Santa than that."
Reese had always loved Christmas. Growing up, it was a magical time for him and the other children in the family with the grown-ups shooing them from the room while assembling and wrapping presents, and Grandpa would shake sleigh bells and hold a plastic Santa Claus up to the window to make the children squeal with giddy delight. They'd been good all year - or at least as good as children can be - and soon the man in the red-and-white suit would be here.
"They were wonderful, those Christmases," Reese said, remembering.
Watching the parade of children take their turn with mall Santas, Reese decided to show the world how Santa Claus should really be represented. In that moment, December 1999, the dancing Santa of Brentwood was born.
Reese is a skinny, slightly built man with tussled brown hair and wire-rim glasses. Sitting on his front porch in regular clothes, he doesn't look much like Santa Claus, but he didn't let that stop him.
He went to J.C. Penney and bought a scarlet Santa suit trimmed in white. He found a beard. He took thick, sturdy pieces of plywood and constructed an oversized desk, which he painted and set in the front yard of his Brentwood home.
On the second full week of December, he put on the suit, placed the black belt around his padded waist, put on a curly, snow-white beard and gently rouged his cheeks and the tip of his nose. His house had been decorated since the beginning of December, the desk sitting with an empty chair in front of it.
Without his red suit, he was a husband, father and grandfather, the shift supervisor at Coleto Creek Power Plant, the neighbor in Brentwood whom people had known for years. But with the suit, he became the man himself - Santa Claus.
The first night he tried it, he took a deep breath as he stepped outside his house in full costume. The bells he had tucked into the padding of his suit jingled softly as he moved. He walked outside, turned on "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" and danced while he waited for the children to come.
They didn't know what to make of him at first. Children would peep at him as their parents drove by and peer out of neighboring windows, but they weren't quite brave enough to get their parents to bring them over to Santa's desk.
The first few nights were kind of boring, so Reese started dancing out there in the yard while he waited for the children to get the idea. He boogied to all of his favorite Christmas songs, and the bells in his suit moved with a more solid, confident jingle as he bounced across the yard.
Finally, some children came over to see the big guy. They settled on his lap and were allowed to choose a hat from a row of whimsical array of caps hanging from pegs along the edge of the desk.
There were just a few children that first year, but the experience left Reese determined to do the whole thing again the next year. He also realized he'd better do his homework, and from then on he prepared for his week as Santa by reading up on all of the latest toys and trends popular with children. The kids were sharp, and an uninformed Santa was the first clue that maybe he wasn't as magical as he was supposed to be.
"Children are really smart," Reese said. "People don't give them credit, but they are totally honest, and they don't miss much."
There was no place in the world where children were as likely to tell you exactly what they thought than while sitting on Santa's knee. Reese quickly learned to be careful what he asked, because the kids, not wanting to mess up their chances of finding what they wanted under the tree on Christmas Day, would tell the exact and unvarnished truth about anything he brought up.
If they came back every year, he learned their names, asked after their families and he always sent a list of what each child had asked for, along with a photo - just in case the Santa himself couldn't get all the presents.
Reese did his best to make sure the children who came to him got what they asked for, but there were some requests that he knew were beyond the powers of Santa.
One year, a little girl sat on his lap and asked him to please make her brother, who was dying of cancer, well.
"That was really tough. I told her that Santa couldn't do that. That was in God's hands, but I'd pray for her," he said.
Even now, years later, his eyes fill and his voice shakes remembering that moment and the things that are beyond even Santa.
The year it snowed, he was enjoying Christmas morning with his family when he saw a blanket of white out the window. Then, nothing could stop him. He had to be out in it, wishing everyone a Merry Christmas as they scampered through the snow.
The years passed, and he watched in amazement as the children grew up before his eyes. His own granddaughters were fascinated by Santa when they were young, always scampering to their grandfather after Santa had left for the evening squealing, "You just missed Santa! You missed him!"
The children grew up, became pre-teens and teenagers and some had children of their own. The toys changed, but every year, the dancing Santa was there on his street in Brentwood.
Until this year, when Reese and his wife retired to Seadrift, the dancing Santa of Brentwood was out on the lawn the second full week of December for more than 10 years. After more than a decade and listening to hundreds of wishes, Reese sold the house and gave up being the dancing Santa of Brentwood. This week he thought of all the children he has watched grow up, wanting to reassure all of them that they've not been forgotten.
"I'm going to miss those kids that came every year," he said.
He hasn't exactly retired the red suit, but now he is a dancing Santa on a smaller scale, talking with only a few kids instead of trying to spend quality time with more than 100 like he did in Brentwood. He still believes in Santa Claus, and he just wanted to do his best to make sure children would keep the same kind of faith that has brought so much joy to his life.
"When you get old, you still believe in Santa," he said. "Everybody believes in Santa. You've got to believe. If you do, Santa's always in your heart."