Santa’s helpers: Clark Countians portray Mr. and Mrs. Claus
Published 7:06 am Saturday, December 9, 2017
While the Jolly Old Elf is busy making his list and checking it twice, he must call on some Clark Countians to take his place.
It’s a big job, a big beard and big boots to fill.
Saint Nicholas, Kris Kringle, Father Christmas, or simply Santa Claus — whatever you call him, the beloved tale of the jolly old fellow who makes a trip once a year leaving cherished gifts for boys and girls is known around the world.
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While each country, culture, religion and family celebrates the Christmas holiday in different ways, it is undeniable that Santa is a fixture and admired by excited children year after year.
Santa Claus has become an iconic figure in the U.S. come December. Hundreds of thousands of children look forward to the chance once a year to sit with Santa and answer the age-old question: “Have you been a good little boy/girl this year?”
But how does one man, albeit one as iconic as Santa, make time to be in Winchester for the annual Christmas parade, and Lexington for pictures at the mall and across the country for a pancake breakfast or on the other side of the globe for a holiday festival?
He’s quick and magical — he has to be to deliver all those gifts in just one day — but he has to employ a little help each holiday season to make all his public appearances.
Thankfully, a plethora of people, including many from Clark County, jump at the chance to help the Clauses fulfill all their holiday engagements each year.
These are the stories of just a few of those lucky local people who have been handpicked as Santa’s helpers.
The dedicated Santa
It was about 2000 when Winchester Fire-EMS began looking for someone to fill the role of Santa Claus for the department’s holiday events, and in stepped Sterling Bellamy.
“The person who had played Santa for many years retired the year before,” Bellamy said. “I was a Winchester firefighter for 21 years and I agreed to help by playing Santa.”
When Bellamy retired in 2005, he decided to continue portraying Santa for the department’s family holiday party.
Most notably, though, Bellamy has been perhaps Winchester’s most famous Santa for nearly two decades. He has donned the hat and boots — but the white beard is his own — for the Winchester Christmas parade for the past 17 years.
Three years ago, the gig was completed by his wife, Alice.
“The chief (Cathey Rigney) said she wanted a Mrs. Claus and I had also always wondered why we didn’t have a Mrs. Claus for the parade,” Alice Bellamy said. “So, it was just a natural fit.”
Together, the couple also spreads Christmas cheer at some area daycares, businesses and for family friends.
“Really, anyone who asks, we try to be there for,” Sterling said.
For the Bellamys, the experience is all about seeing the excitement as children come face to face with Santa.
“Their faces just light up,” Alice said. “It’s all about seeing the kids’ reactions. They just love it.”
Along with the excitement comes some inquisitive minds.
“A lot of times they will ask ‘Are you the real Santa?’ and I just explain that Santa can’t be everywhere at once, so he has helpers,” Sterling said.
That explanation hit close to home when the Bellamys’ grandson caught on that his grandparents were Santa’s helpers.
“It was a few years ago when we were in the parade and I caught a look at our grandson from atop the fire truck,” Sterling said. “I could tell that it registered to him that it was us. When he asked, he let him know that Santa was busy and he called us to help.”
There are also plenty of questions for the misses, Alice said.
“A lot of times they will ask how the elves are doing,” she said. “Others will ask if Santa really sits around eating cookies and drinking milk at the North Pole all day. It’s cute.”
The experience of bringing joy to so many local children is one the Bellamys look forward to for years to come.
“We will keep doing it as long as we are able and they allow us,” Sterling said.
“Or we’re too old to get into the bucket truck,” Alice added.
Santa the family man
Although typically shy and reserved, portraying the Jolly Old Fellow is an opportunity for Steve Means to come of out his shell. And with his wife, Vickie, by his side as Mrs. Claus, the couple have been enlisted by several family members to play the part.
The pair has been playing Mr. and Mrs. Claus regularly for about three years, and enjoy the gig so much they can’t wait to retire so they can do it more often.
“We are both retiring next year, and we are excited because that will give us more time to play the roles at the many different places we’re asked,” Vickie said. “It has been our busiest season yet. Once we are retired from our day jobs, we can feel a little more free to do this, which we enjoy.”
It was about six years ago when former Hannah McClure Elementary principal Kathy Howard was looking for someone to play Santa, Vickie recalled.
“They had the suit, they just needed someone to wear it,” she said. “They told us that someone else said they could do it, but they were going to charge. She asked Steve, and he’s normally kind of shy, but we thought that we’d much rather see him do it than to have to pay someone.”
A few years later, a family member asked the couple to do the gig for Shearer Elementary School’s pancake breakfast with Santa and the requests came rolling in from there.
Since then, they have played the roles for Methodist Little Learners, Conkwright Elementary and have been enlisted for the Kentucky Bank Chamber of Commerce After Hours later this month.
The couple said they have enjoyed seeing the same children year after year experience the excitement of meeting Mr. and Mrs. Claus.
“One little girl gets so excited she runs and jumps in Santa’s lamp as she hugs him,” Vickie said. “It’s like she can’t contain the excitement.”
Particularly, though, playing the roles has been an opportunity for the Means’ to do something in memory of someone who cherished the holiday dearly.
“My mom passed away about five years ago,” Vickie said. “She was very big into Christmas. She always went all out. After she died, it was hard for me to get in the Christmas spirit. By doing this, I’m able to regain some of that joy at the holidays, although I still miss her dearly.”
“She would have loved seeing us do this,” Steve said. “She would have been right up there with us.”
The downtown Santa
For Graham Johns, his dive into the world of playing Santa came out of his love for downtown Winchester.
He is relatively new to the gig, having only portrayed Santa twice. The first time was for the Winchester-Clark County Farmers’ Market’s holiday open house.
He said his physical similarities to Father Christmas made him a prime candidate.
“Any time you have a big belly, I think you’re good for the job,” he laughed. “I can also be loud and jolly as I’m saying ‘Ho, ho, ho’ and ‘Merry Christmas.’”
As a board member for Main Street Winchester, Johns said he jumps at any opportunity to help businesses downtown.
“These were friends asking me to do a favor, and I’ll do anything to promote things going on downtown.”
Earlier this year, he played Santa at Court Street Gifts for the annual downtown Holiday Hop. He said the role presents its own challenges.
“The beard is the hardest part,” he said. “There’s very little breathing room. I’m constantly trying to make sure I can breathe.”
Then there’s task of not being recognized, he said.
“I think a lot of kids know me even in costume based on my glasses,” he said. “But I’m pretty blind without them, so I got a few looks from suspecting kids.”
While some encounters are full of magic and excitement, Johns said there are some who are less enthusiastic about seeing Santa.
“I remember with my own daughter that she got to an age, about 3 years old, where she was petrified of Santa,” he said. “So I know I have to expect that might happen with some of the kids I see, too.
“Some of these kids build Santa up so much in their heads that it’s like they’re meeting God. I imagine that would be terrifying.”