Morganton’s resident Santa Claus helper, Claude Huffman, still recalls a time he witnessed the true power of his character. Huffman’s friends, who were trying to wean their toddler grandson from a pacifier, told the boy that Huffman – nearly a spitting image of Santa – didn’t want the toddler to suck on the pacifier.
“He looks up, takes the pacifier out of his mouth, and throws it away,” said Huffman. “His grandma says, ‘Can we talk about potty-training?’ ”
Huffman will play a starring role in downtown Morganton’s extensive holiday activities, including the Christmas Parade on Dec. 4, regular appearances throughout town and at several Breakfasts with Santa.
Huffman, who plays Santa for Morganton and Burke County at 70 events each year, said the role brings him a very simple joy.
“I just enjoy so much seeing the children light up whenever they see me, and when you give them a big, roaring, ‘Ho ho ho!’ ” he said.
“Usually if I see the child smile, I can look up about 2 feet and see the same smile on the parent’s face.”
Huffman has 16 years of Santa under his belt – though, he is quick to add, only 15 years with a true beard. His first year acting the part, he was still Captain of Morganton’s Fire Department, and had to keep a clean-shaven face for the job. The wife of a co-worker initially asked him to step into the role, for a daycare center.
“It sort of shocked me – and I said, ‘Oh well, I’ll do it,’ ” Huffman said.
He still incorporates his fire-fighting career; he cruises through Morganton in a 1917 American LaFrance-model fire truck, in “mint condition,” stopping to greet residents.
“I just set a chair up and let the children come up and visit – and a lot of firefighters and adults are interested in the truck,” Huffman said.
Over the years, Huffman has developed in own protocol for talking with children. He won’t tell them his age – “Who knows how old Santa Claus is?” – or reveal Mrs. Claus’s name as anything but “Mrs. Claus.” He’s also careful with gift requests.
“I don’t ever want to promise a child something,” he said.
Instead, Huffman cautions them to “be good,” and maybe they’ll get their wishes. He described the trickier questions some children ask, such as wishing to reunite divorced parents or bring back a parent who passed away.
“I tell (the children) I’m Santa Claus, not God, and I’ll put them on a prayer list,” Huffman said.
Even when the Christmas season ends, Huffman keeps Santa alive. He nearly morphs into the full character, bearing a flowing white beard year-round and often sporting a red shirt and suspenders. He’s been greeted as Santa everywhere he goes – at restaurants, even relaxing in his camper while on vacation mid-summer.
“There’s a lot of children (who) still get a lot of pleasure about waving to me and taking pictures with me, even in the middle of the summer,” he said. “Morganton’s a small town, so a lot of people recognize me.
“I just turn around and talk to (the children). They are our future.”
Downtown Morganton will also celebrate the holiday season with a Holiday Bucks program.
The program gives away $1,500 in gift certificates, and residents can purchase certificates as gifts for others, redeemable at any one of nearly 40 participating businesses.
Beth Willard, community events coordinator with Downtown Morganton, explained that residents can win certificates through Facebook promotions and scavenger hunt activities.
She described how the Holiday Bucks program aims to spotlight local businesses and boost their sales – once a certificate is redeemed, local business can “cash” it in for reimbursement.
“We’re happy that our downtown is alive and growing,” said Willard. “… [The downtown] is still the heart of the community, and if you don’t support these businesses, they won’t stick around.
“I think it’s important to buy local and keep those dollars in your county and city – and this is a great way to do that.”
For information about the Holiday Bucks program and the holiday activities schedule, visit www.downtownmorganton.com or call 828-438-5252.