CASPER, Wyo. (BP) – It’s not uncommon for Craig Waters to experience a case of mistaken identity.
Children routinely walk up to the pastor and tug on his pants, committed to getting an audience with him if only for a minute. To be fair, Waters’ white hair and beard, considerable girth and jolly nature have a lot to do with it. It’s almost like kids can sense that a Santa suit hangs in his closet.
Waters, pastor of Sunrise Baptist Church in Casper, has dressed up as Santa Claus for at least 20 years and, yes, he has his own suit. His portrayal has come in churches, but also at other events including on top of fire trucks and at Walmarts. Most recently he played the part at Sunrise’s Breakfast with Santa event held Dec. 10.
There, Waters listened to children’s requests. But he also delivered the same important gift that has become intwined with these appearances.
“I focus on Jesus and tell the children that He is the reason for the season,” Waters said. “That’s the whole point. Santa is a servant. He brings joy and laughter. I pray for them and let them know that our only hope is in Jesus.”
Breakfast with Santa gave local families the opportunity to make a traditional Christmas visit, with about 60 kids getting a picture with Waters. It also gave members of Sunrise the chance to carry on conversations with them as well as provide coffee, hot chocolate, juice and pancakes and sausage.
“We’re a big enough church, but have that ‘small’ atmosphere that if you’re not there you will be missed,” Waters said.
Sunrise has found other ways to make a difference in the community such as nursing home visitations and covering half the tuition for two students at a local Christian school.
A trimmer version of Waters’ beard remains throughout the year. But that doesn’t stop random children from assuring him that they have been good “so far.” Every Oct. 20 – his birthday – he begins to grow it out in preparation for Christmas. In early November Waters was at a wedding and one persistent little boy followed him around until his mother informed Waters her son thought he was Santa.
“I sat down and put him on my lap and we talked Christmas,” Waters said.
Many gift requests are pretty typical. Some, not so much. On Saturday at the church Santa/Waters was asked to deliver a chainsaw.
“That was a proud dad looking on,” Waters said.
Other requests indicate a story behind them. For instance, one little girl asked for her dad to make his child support payments.
“I want them to understand that God has a purpose for them, a plan,” Waters said. “In this you have a lot of fun and laughter, but it’s also about encouragement. I make it clear that Santa is a servant of God.
“Jesus is the reason. We don’t do ‘religion.’ Unto us was born that day a Savior, a Rescuer, a Messiah, a King, a Lord.”
He may dress up and play the role this time of year. But there is really no identity crisis for Waters and those near him.
On a recent Sunday after church, he joined others at a restaurant for lunch. A woman nearby got the attention of a 6-year-old girl with the group. She motioned toward Waters, asking the little girl if she knew she was eating with Santa.
“Yes she does,” Waters said, “but she’s with her pastor, too.”