With his white beard and hefty size, Tom Sorrels often is mistaken for Santa Claus.
This summer, he was leaving a Mexican restaurant when a little girl told him he looked like Santa.
The remark left an impression, and that led to him dressing the part and helping the big guy from the North Pole during the holiday season.
Sorrels is among dozens of East Texas men who sport a Santa look not only around Christmastime but year-round or a big part of the year. Their looks garner stares and frequent inquiries from innocent children.
Sorrels said playing Santa now has become his “civic duty.”
He had previous Santa experience – a Santa internship from in the 1970s at Lamar University when he worked for a Rent-A- Santa – but had not given much thought to playing Santa since.
All that changed this summer after one child’s remark.
“It’s more than putting on a suit and going ‘Ho! Ho! Ho!'” Sorrels said. “Maybe it was a calling.”
After the encounter with the little girl, perhaps fate struck as Sorrels attended an insurance conference in Atlanta. Sorrels has been in the insurance business for 20 years.
While at the conference, he ran into other Santa look-alikes, who happened to be there for the International Brotherhood of the Direct Descendants of Santa Claus convention.
Back home in Tyler, he researched the group, found a red suit and a pair of boots online and dove into the Santa role.
“If you put in a few extra touches, you really can look like Santa,” he said.
While he never intended to become a full-time Santa, his winter schedule booked quickly.
He has been filling in for a Santa in Longview and at the Irving Mall. He did the tree lighting in Tyler, the parade in Bullard, the lighting in Ben Wheeler, a Cub Scout meeting last Monday, Dallas events and one on the children’s floor at Trinity Mother Frances Hospital.
“You have to believe. If you don’t, I don’t think the kids do,” Sorrels said. “It’s all about the kids.”
Neal Copeland, of Kilgore, does not wear red when it is not the holidays.
His wife, Cathy, refuses to buy him red clothes because everywhere he goes, no matter the time of year, people stop him to ask if he is Santa.
But when Christmas rolls around, he can’t resist playing Santa.
“I’ve been doing it as long as I can remember,” Copeland said.
The Copelands enjoy dressing like Mr. and Mrs. Claus during the holiday season and visiting with people around Kilgore.
“It’s fun,” Mrs. Copeland said. “It’s sweet seeing children’s eyes light up, and even the older people, their eyes just light up, too.”
Every morning, Neal Copeland loads up his shirt pocket with a handful of miniature candy canes. He said he plans to maintain the Santa persona until death.
“I reach in my pocket and give them a candy cane and let them use their own judgment,” Copeland said.
His relatives help him uphold his Santa role, referring to Copeland as ” Santa” on vacations.
“Even older ones still aren’t sure till this day if he’s Santa or not,” Mrs. Copeland said.
Gary York’s philosophy is why be grumpy when you can be jolly?
The philosophy comes from his ” Santa Claus personality,” he said.
Although York, of Tyler, only wears a Santa suit for his wife’s Christmas-card photos, he tries to “live the Christmas spirit” all year long, he said.
“There’s just something about Santa Claus that’s magical,” York said. “The kids all think I’m Santa. I just smile and wave.”
Though he has always been “chubby and jolly,” York said he started “graying out” and taking on the Santa look in 2000 after he had congestive heart failure.
“It’s hard to be cracking jokes when you’re hurting … but it gives you a will and a want to live,” York said. “I don’t do anything special, I just live the part: Peace on Earth and good will to all. It’s kind of an old-fashioned thing.”
He believes the holiday mascot is “a unifying concept.”
“It bridges cultures and religion. It’s taken a life of its own aside from its origins,” York said. ” Santa Claus ain’t all about Santa Claus. He’s about everyone else.”
While the world is “pretty crazy” these days, York said anything he can do to “pick up other people’s spirits” is a good thing.
” Santa is the idea of a person who is all love, all compassion, all mercy and isn’t limited by social and religious confines,” York said. “He can speak to anybody and everybody in no conflicting way.”
While Kenny Shaver’s junior high and high school students know him as “Mr. Shaver,” he said they look at him like he could be Santa, too.
The East Texas Christian Academy English teacher took on the Santa role about 11 years ago.
“I like kids and I’ve always liked Christmas,” he said. “It just seemed to naturally fit together.”
He starts working on his beard around August and lets it grow bushy until Christmas.
“Seeing the smiles on their faces, being somebody they can believe in, it kind of makes it real for the kids,” he said.
Shaver’s suit was a hand-me-down gift from a friend who used to play Santa around town.
“If you’re going to do it, you’re going to do it because you like the kids,” he said.
His first grandbaby is on the way, and Shaver wonders what his new name will be.
“I could be ‘ Santa-Daddy,'” Shaver said. “I guess we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”
When Shaver is Santa, he said he talks softer and quieter, and gets down on the child’s level.
He likes hearing what children want for Christmas, and many of their stories cause him to “just melt.”
Christmas movies, gingerbread cakes or caroling might be popular Christmas traditions, but in the Carrell family, the beard takes center stage.
Charlie Carrell, of Emory, said his Santa beard became a tradition nearly a decade ago.
His granddaughter did not like Santa.
“She did not want anything to do with Santa Claus, didn’t want him in her house,” Carrell said. “She had plenty of toys (and) didn’t want him around.”
He decided to grow a beard to show her that Santa was “all right.”
He plays Santa at the grocery store in Emory.
“It’s a good feeling,” Carrell said. “But you have to be careful about what you say because a kid might ask for something that they really can’t have. You don’t want to make any promises, but it was a lot of fun.”
Originally intended as a one-time event, the cutting of the beard on Dec. 26 sprung into a yearly tradition.
“It’s kind of a little ritual,” Carrell said.
In October, he starts growing his snow-white beard.
By Christmas, he has a good 3 inches with which to work.
“I’m normally clean shaven, head and face, too, because it’s a lot less trouble,” Carrell said.
Despite an emotionally and financially tough year, Ed Hawkins, of New Chapel Hill, decided to use his Santa features to give back to his community.
A downbeat Hawkins decided to quit shaving after he lost his wallet and $500 cash. The financial hit “hurt real bad,” he said.
Little did he know, he would morph into Santa Claus.
This year, he played Santa at the Chapel Hill Dairy Queen and at the Dairy Queen north of Tyler on Interstate 20.
“It’s changed my character, but I’m always trying to be nice,” Hawkins said.
Already, he said the experience has been great. He wants to grow his beard longer for next Christmas.
“I do it just to make people happy, maybe it will change their attitude too,” Hawkins said.
Rod Skelton, of Montalba, went to combat as a Marine, spent time as a minister and a chuckwagon cook.
“I’ve done everything except train reindeer, and some people accuse me of that,” he said.
When he got out of the service, he started growing his beard, and that was more than 30 years ago.
The only time he shaved his beard, it scared his wife so bad “she ran out the door,” Skelton said.
Skelton never intended to look like Santa.
He has always been an outdoorsman and worked on ranches. He has had many skin cancers and said the beard protects his face from the sun.
Even though his beard is for practical reasons, he said he gets double-takes all the time.
About three years ago, he was at a store in Jacksonville with his beard “pretty long.”
He remembers wearing a red jacket and a little girl kept looking at him, whispering to her mother and looking back.
“I was on another aisle and I felt somebody tug on my jacket,” he said. “I looked down and it was this little girl.”
She asked if he was “the real Santa,” to which he replied, “I’m his brother.”
“I knew she probably wouldn’t get everything she wanted for Christmas, and the next time she saw me at the store, I’d be in trouble,” Skelton said.
Only once since 1985 did Gerald Freeman, of Texarkana, not dress up as Santa Claus.
His daughter, Amanda, asked him to stop, but the next year, after a guilt trip from her friends, she said he could start back and play.
“The facial expressions on the young and the old when you have a natural beard – the expressions are just breathtaking to me,” Freeman said. “Then they come up and their faces just gleam as they’re running to you. It’s just a great joy.”
He stops shaving each year around June to give his beard time to take full effect.
In the meantime, he calls volleyball games and is known to the players as ” Santa.”
“They don’t know what my name is but they call me Santa,” he said, adding that the players say, “The guy with the white beard called our games.'”
Freeman strives to avoid the commercialism of the holidays and to “keep Christ in Christmas.”
This year especially, the Christmas holiday has a deeper meaning: family.
In June, his wife, Julie, and granddaughter, Kylee, drowned in the Albert Pike flood in Arkansas.
“This year, not having them, I don’t even have a tree up in my house,” Freeman said. “We always had a tree. But I put up the lights because I know the kids like the lights.”
He said he plans to continue dressing up like Santa again this year and into the future.
“Even though it’s sad to me on the inside this Christmas, seeing their facial expressions and the happy, joyous times that they’re having, it flows over into me,” Freeman said.
Published December 24
Tyler Morning Telegraph