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Pastors working as Santas bring joy, extend ministry to others during holidays

Rich Patsios, a retired Birmingham-area Methodist pastor, serves as Santa. Photo by Tracy Riggs/The Alabama Baptist

Santas can be seen just about everywhere these days. They’re on TV, at the mall, at Christmas parties and in parades. They come from all walks of life. 

And though most are secular performers, Saint Nicholas’ foundation as a model of Christian generosity and kindness has inspired many current or retired ministers to spend the holidays as Santa.

“Our members, Santas, Mrs. Clauses and associates are but a microcosm of the populations within which they are raised and/or reside,” said Stephen Arnold, president of the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas.

Cameron Reeder, care pastor at World Harvest Outreach in Hartselle, and Rich Patsios, retired Birmingham-area Methodist pastor, are two Alabama Santas with ministry experience. Both say they sort of fell into the role.

If the suit fits

Reeder inherited a Santa suit from his father and portrayed Santa for his grandchildren. When his beard started growing out, a friend asked him to play Santa for his kids. 

“I started to realize that not only could I bring joy to kids, I could also make a little money doing it,” Reeder recalled. “Since then, I get to share the joy of Christmas with kids all over. This has encouraged me to make Santa an annual part of my life.”

Patsios’ beard was key to his becoming a professional Santa too.

“I decided to grow a beard on an extended vacation in 2019,” he recalled. “My wife remarked that the beard was coming in almost white, and I could be a Santa. I replied that I certainly had the build for it!”

Gospel opportunities

Being a faith-based Santa has never been an issue for either man and has provided opportunities non-faith-based Santas probably wouldn’t take.

“I do not hesitate to point folks to the manger as the real reason for the season,” Reeder explained. “Most Christians celebrate Christmas with all the trappings, including Santa. There are many sincere folks who don’t, so if someone did have a problem, I would tell them to hold fast to their convictions.

“I am in active ministry and that always comes first,” he noted. “I consider Santa a small extension of that ministry. I sometimes get to pray with or for a child and their family — with their permission of course — especially when they are going through a tough time. Children often open up to Santa.”

Patsios said his most memorable virtual visit as Santa was with some children in Morocco. “Their grandmother was in the U.S. looking for a faith-based Santa — there were none of those in Morocco! The beauty of doing virtual visits was that grandma was on the call in Georgia, I was in Alabama, and the children were in Morocco. They were overjoyed to visit with Santa!”

People skills required

Wearing many hats and speaking easily to individuals and groups are some of the abilities of pastors that help when portraying Santa. Their people skills, learned in ministry, are used every time each one puts on the suit.

This can come in handy when children are reluctant to visit with Santa. Props, such as Patsios’ ukulele or Reeder’s light-up naughty/nice book, may help draw a child in, but it takes patience and understanding for Santa to spend the time needed to relieve fears or make the visit extra special.

“I remember one compliant child who sat down next to me purely because mom wanted her to do so,” Patsios recalled. “She was shaking with fear. I managed to calm her down, and as she was leaving, she turned around, smiled and waved to me.”

Reeder said he never rushes “a child who wants to spend a few extra minutes with Santa. It is so special when a child hands you a note they have written or a picture they have colored just for Santa. I have a box at home where I keep these precious letters to Santa.”

However, children aren’t the only ones who might need a Santa.

History of St. Nicholas

“Because I am a faith-based Santa, I have often spoken with Christian groups about the Christian underpinnings of St. Nicholas, Kris Kringle and Santa Claus,” Patsios said. “Sometimes I do this as a sermon. My favorite was a Christmas in July event at a … lakeside church service. I conducted a Christmas service with carols that I played and sang and delivered the message in informal Santa attire.”

Though there are many commonalities between these two faith-based Santas, the experience of portraying the character is a little different for each.

Patsios has learned “to be jolly and kind no matter what happens. It just ruins everything if Santa is cross!”

Reeder discovered that “preserving our traditions is critical. We live in a world where children have to grow up too quickly and face issues that we didn’t when we were kids. If we as Santa can give that child one moment of joy or peace, then it is all worth it.”

This article first appeared in The Alabama Baptist.

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  • Tracy Riggs Frontz/The Alabama Baptist