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Santa comes but once a year: Well-known Mr. and Mrs. Claus reflect on Christmas career

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Ed and Lindy Daughtry (Santa and Mrs. Claus) read a Christmas book together in their home in Greenville. Following heart surgery, Santa has had to slow down his busy schedule this Christmas season.

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By Kim Grizzard
The Daily Reflector

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Ed Daughtry remembers how good it felt the first time he ever put on the big, red suit to go out in public.

He and his wife, Lindy, were visiting family in Greensboro and thought it would be fun to step out on Christmas Eve as Santa and Mrs. Claus. So they strolled through the neighborhood, waving as they walked past. Children sitting down to dinner with their families simply couldn't believe their eyes.

Nearly two decades later, Santa still loves few things more than waving his white-gloved hand at children who haven't stopped believing in the magic of Christmas.

“All you've got to do is see that little sparkle in those eyes; it just makes your day,” Lindy said. “Ed says every man should get in a Santa suit one day in his life.”

This year, that is exactly what Ed has done. While he usually is dressed as St. Nicholas for much of the Christmas season, Ed has spent just one day as Santa in 2018: Dec. 8. Friends still call him Santa year-round, but Ed is hanging up his hat for every engagement but one: the Greenville Jaycees Christmas Parade.

“At my age, it's getting a little tough to do,” Ed, 78, said of serving as Santa each year for a multitude of community events. “We just don't want to stop completely. It makes the season for us.”

Today is the first time in 16 years that Ed and Lindy won't suit up to chat with children at the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Coastal Plain's annual Santa Project. It will be up to another helper to try to fill Santa's boots.

Ed, a member of University City Kiwanis Club, the project sponsor, won't even make an appearance in his regular clothes out of concern that children might recognize him and become confused. It happens all the time.

“When he's not in costume, doesn't even have the hat on,” Lindy said of kids recognizing Ed as Santa. “When his beard starts growing and October comes, they're starting to think about it. ... They just talk to him just like he's got the whole suit on. It's unbelievable.”

Ed and Lindy, who are avid Pirates fans, have been approached so often at games that they have had to come up with an explanation to give to kids who want to know what Santa and Mrs. Claus are doing at ECU.

“We had to tell them that we have a condo here, so we come to see the Pirates play,” Lindy said. “And if they ever see us they're not allowed to scream, 'Santa Claus.'”

It was Lindy's daughter who first noticed that her mother's then-boyfriend, Ed, bore a strong resemblance to Kris Kringle. After the two married, Lindy bought her husband a suit on a lark. The following year, the Kiwanis Club needed someone to act as Santa, and Ed's new persona was born.

The job of a Jolly Old Elf seemed to suit him in more ways than one. Not only does he have the beard for it and even the cheeks, Ed also knows how to play “Jingle Bells” (or most any other Christmas tune) on his harmonica.

“He'll throw out a 'Ho, ho ho' in the middle of July,” said Donyell Jones, chief operating officer of the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Coastal Plain and a fellow Kiwanis Club member. “He doesn't wait until Christmastime.”

As word of Ed's Santa skills spread, the Daughtrys' Christmas calendar began to fill. The Jaycees floated the idea of having him in the parade, and the Greenville Utilities Commission made the couple a highlight of the company Christmas party. Even the Pirate Club got in the game by auctioning off a visit from Santa to the highest bidder at an annual fundraising event.

Santa and Mrs. Claus, who volunteered their time, have been known to fetch the club as much as $1,400 for agreeing to go on a hayride or show up on a Saturday for dinner and to read a bedtime story for children.

But Santa's work has not been all fun and games. There have been times that children have asked for more than he could deliver.

Ed recalls one appearance where an older girl who kept letting younger children in front of her to ensure she was the last in line. When it was finally her turn to sit on Santa's knee, the child was almost in tears.

“I asked her what would she like for Christmas and she said, 'I'd like for my parents to get back together,'” Ed recalled. “The only thing I could think to say was, 'Just remember that you didn't cause this.'”

For reasons that are not exactly clear to most adults, kids seem to believe that they can tell Santa anything. Ed thinks maybe it's because they've heard their parents speak so highly of him. Lindy wonders if the uniform has something to do with making Santa, like a police officer or a firefighter, seem like a safe person.

She remembers an 8-year-old boy who was waiting to see Santa at the Boys & Girls Club one year. Dressed as Mrs. Claus, Lindy decided to strike up a conversation with him.

“I said, 'Are you excited to see Santa”' and he said, 'I am. You know he's never been to see me,” Lindy said, near tears.

“We had just started doing it (serving as Santa and Mrs. Claus),” she said. “We weren't ready. You learn every year.”

Through the years, most of the conversations have been much more light-hearted, like the one where the little boy chased after them to ask how Santa would get into his house because there was no chimney.

“I said, 'Oh, we have a key. We have a key that fits everybody's house'” Lindy recalled, laughing. “So I have to carry that around with me because you never know when they're going to ask about that.”

Children's lists of questions for Santa can be even longer than the lists of what they want for Christmas. They ask how many elves are in the North Pole.They wonder what kind of cookies he likes. 

“They almost appear to be in combat with each other to see who can ask the toughest question,” Ed said. “Some of the stuff that comes out of their mouths is amazing. They want to know every little detail about your Santa suit, where's Rudolph of course. (Answer: He's in the mountains resting. Santa and Mrs. Claus can't drag those reindeer everywhere. Except for Christmas Eve, they rent a car when they travel.) 

“They'll ask you, 'Since you know so much, what do I want for Christmas?'” Ed said.

One dreaded question began emerging a few years ago: “What's my elf's name?” Though Ed and Lindy often flipped through toy catalogs to keep abreast of the latest trends, they were unprepared for the whole “Elf on the Shelf” craze.

“That just about did us in the year that came out,” Lindy said. “That caught us off guard.”

Some of the funniest moments in their careers have been when Santa and Mrs. Claus have caught adults by surprise. One of the best happened about five years ago when the two were traveling in Santa's red Jeep from a party at the Boys & Girls Club. Driving through a neighborhood, they noticed a large group of girls at one home, so they decided it might be fun to make an impromptu visit.

They walked up to the front door, rang the bell and were invited to come inside to join the party. As Santa got out his harmonica and began playing, mothers, assuming that their hostess had arranged for the visit, scrambled for their phones to get pictures or videos.

“A man comes walking in from upstairs and he says to his wife, 'Who is that?'” Lindy said, laughing. “She said, 'Well I thought you sent him' and he said, 'Well, no! Did you just let him in the house?'”

As it turned out, the girls had gathered that afternoon to make gifts for cancer patients at the children's hospital.

“That gave us a chance to talk to those little girls about how important it was to do things for other people,” Lindy said. “It was perfect.”

The Daughtrys, who are members of St. James United Methodist Church, also have used their platform at Santa and Mrs. Claus as a pulpit of sorts to remind children of a Christmas story that has nothing to do with Santa.

“Kids get so excited and everything,” Lindy said. “We've had the opportunity to be able to talk to the children about baby Jesus and that he's much more important than Santa Claus.”

They will miss those interactions. But after Ed's heart surgery earlier this year, doctors told him not to lift more than 10 pounds. That meant hoisting hundreds of children onto his knee this Christmas season was entirely out of the question. Mrs. Claus has back problems, so having her pick them up for him was not a good option either.

“It does come a time when it's a little much,” Lindy said. “The suit is heavy; the boots are heavy.”

It was with heavy hearts that the Daughtrys began breaking the news that Santa was phasing into semi-retirement.

“We're definitely going to miss him at the Santa Project,” Jones said. “They have a true heart and passion for young people. You can see it when they're interacting with the kids over at the Boys & Girls Club. They're like the kids' grandmother and grandfather.”

Though he could not be there this year, Ed did have one more trick up his velvety red sleeve. If he couldn't suit up for the Boys & Girls Club party, he could at least make sure that someone else did. So he and Lindy gave one of Ed's Santa suits to a new Santa, whom they “interviewed” for the volunteer position.

“He had a good demeanor; he's just a nice man.” Ed said of the man, who he says has an even better Santa beard than his.

Lindy has advised him not to let the beard get too long. (“It scares the kids.”).

“I want them to have a cute Santa, that's got the cheeks and everything,” she said.

After outfitting the new Santa's helper, they gave him a list of places where Ed had volunteered, along with a few tips about the tricks of the trade.

“We said, ‘We can tell you some things,’” Lindy explained, “’but you're going to just have to grow with this because you're going to learn every time you put that suit on.’”

Putting on that suit is an experience that Ed highly recommends to any man.

“He needs to either buy it, rent it or borrow one at least one time,” he said. “He'll never experience anything quite like it. It'll just change your perspective of Santa Claus and Christmas and people in general. There's just good, a lot of good in a lot of people, especially little children.”

Contact Kim Grizzard at kgrizzard@reflector.com and 329-95778.

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