Gene Ervin’s career as the Lake Norman Santa Claus started in the late 1980s while he was working at the Cornelius Fire Department’s annual Christmas tree lot. Members from a local church told him they were donating a tree and some presents to a family in need. Ervin volunteered to put on the fire department’s old Santa suit and deliver the goodies to the family. “It was a single mother with five kids,” says Ervin, 72. “When Santa showed up they were tickled to death. Seeing the smiles on those kids’ faces really stuck with me.” Ervin has played Santa every Christmas since then, including stints at Eastland Mall and SouthPark Mall and various parades and events around Lake Norman. He’s even entertained tens of thousands of people as Santa at Carolina Panthers games. With Dec. 25 rapidly approaching, we caught up with “Santa Gene” to ask him about his 20-plus-year career as old St. Nick.
What been your most memorable appearance as Santa? I was at Eastland Mall and saw a little girl in line doing sign language with her mother. Her name was Melissa, and she was deaf. When she sat on my lap her mom helped interpret. I told her if she came to see me next year I would do my best to talk with her using sign language. I took a course at CPCC that summer, and the next Christmas back at Eastland I looked over and here comes Melissa. We both started doing sign language and she just lit up. Everybody on the set was crying, including me.
What’s been the most unusual Christmas request you’ve gotten from a kid? “I’ve had a lot of children ask for $1 million. I always tell them I’m Santa, not Ed McMahon. But I also get sad requests. One little fella asked me if I could cure his mother’s cancer. I told him I couldn’t, but I’d put her on my prayer list, and that seemed to satisfy him.”
Are the Santa beard and belly real? I love Kenny Rogers and always tried to look like him, so I’ve had a beard for about 35 years, but I used to wear it short. So when I started as Santa I wore a fake beard but it itched and the kids could tell it wasn’t real. I figured I could do better, so I let mine grow out. As far as the belly, for a long time it was all mine. But following my doctor’s orders I lost about 30 pounds. Now I have a little help, but I’ve never had a child doubt that it wasn’t the real me under the suit.
What was your favorite Christmas gift you received as a kid? I got a Lionel electric train set. I was up at about 4 in the morning with that train going round and round and the whistle blowing. I got sent back to bed right quick.”
You can see “Santa Gene” this month at the following events: Dec. 1. North Mecklenburg Christmas Parade. The parade starts in Davidson on Griffith Street and heads south on N.C. 115 to the Cornelius Fire Department. 1 p.m. Dec. 7. Cookies with Santa at the Cornelius Arts Center. 19725 Oak St., Unit 1, Cornelius. 9-11 a.m. Dec. 8. A Huntersville Christmas. Downtown Huntersville. 6-9 p.m.