Published 9:15 am Tuesday, October 17, 2023
Headline: Santa’s little helpers
Subhead: Vicksburg residents spread Christmas cheer by assisting the big guy
By Ernest Bowker
The Vicksburg Post
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Santa drives a red corvette and rides a Harley. He wears thousand-dollar suits and plays golf in the summer. He plays chess, enjoys long bike rides and is an accomplished actor.
Santa is a man of many talents and many faces, a few of which you might have seen around town from time to time. There is a vast network of people around the world who assist the big guy by occasionally filling in for him, and a couple of them live in and around Vicksburg.
They have been deputized by Santa to portray him at various events and help keep the magic of Christmas alive.
“I don’t like to use the word ‘play,’ because I don’t play it,” said Vicksburg resident Mike Renfroe, who has portrayed Santa — his preferred term — for 14 years. “I was in costume or a very nice suit and I’m portraying Santa. When people would say, ‘Are you playing Santa?’ No, I don’t play Santa, I am Santa. I’m living Santa. Not only during the season but during the offseason.”
Renfroe has a real, long, bushy white beard and round face that made him a natural for the role. His former co-workers at the Grand Gulf Nuclear Station would often say he looked like Santa, so when he retired in 2009 it was a perfect segue into a second career.
“People called me Santa because I looked like Santa, so I just went with it,” he said.
Renfroe dove headfirst into the Santa life. He attended several conventions that included classes on different facets of Santadom. He learned how to tell stories, sprinkle fairy dust — he has several varieties on hand, each with different magical powers — and how to dress.
“I learned how to do all that at Santa conventions. They have Santa colleges around the country,” Renfroe said. “I went to three conventions. We have a lot of classes and they have instructors come in, and they taught us different things to do.”
Mark Jourdan is another of Santa’s helpers. The former Vicksburg resident now lives in Clinton and has portrayed Santa for more than 40 years. Like Renfroe, he has learned plenty of ways to show Santa’s personality.
“I’ve evolved. Now I have a red bag that I carry with different things in it, but it always has Hershey’s Kisses,” Jourdan said. “I love going up to the older ladies and telling them, ‘Santa likes to give a kiss to all the pretty young ladies.’ Then I open my hand and ask, ‘Would you like a kiss from Santa?’ It brings smiles, I like bringing smiles. I like bringing smiles to kids’ faces, too.”
Jourdan has found another way to help Santa make children smile. He donates most of the money he receives to several Vicksburg-area charities, primarily The Vicksburg Child Abuse Prevention Center; Haven House, a home for battered wives and children; and Good Shepherd.
“I understand I am not giving large sums to these different organizations, but if they can make a difference in a child’s life for just one day, then I believe I have made a difference,” Jourdan said. “And isn’t that what Santa is all about?”
“Is the beard real?”
Some Santas wear fake beards of varying quality, but Renfroe and Jourdan are proud to say their facial hair is real. Renfroe even belongs to an organization called the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas, which offers logistical support, networking and other professional advice.
“I probably would not do Santa if I wasn’t a real bearded Santa. I would not wear a fake beard,” Renfroe said. “That’s one of the No. 1 questions I get asked — ‘Hey, can I pull your beard?’ I’ve had kids reach up and try to pull it off.”
While no one, not even Santa Claus, enjoys having their hair pulled, Jourdan said allowing children to pull it helps show that he is in fact Santa.
“I encourage them to pull the beard. They’re not going to pull it too hard, and if they do I can pull their hands away real quick,” Jourdan said.
The suit makes the man
Being Santa is not a just a job, it’s a responsibility that Renfroe and Jourdan take very seriously. They are Santa, or at least his representative, and do their best to live up to everything that entails.
Jourdan is careful about where he parks his sled, so that children won’t see him get into it. Renfroe won’t eat at breakfast with Santa events, lest anyone remember forever the time they saw Santa Claus scarfing down bacon, eggs and coffee.
“Your responsibility is to look the part and be the part,” Renfroe said. “You’ve got to convince them. Some of them are going to argue with you about it. How do you know? What makes you think I’m not real? Wouldn’t it be better to think that I’m real than be wrong?”
Investing in a good Santa suit is another part of that responsibility. Fake beards and cheap suits, Renfroe said, don’t represent Santa very well. His custom Santa suit cost more than $1,000 and comes from renowned Hollywood costume shop Adele’s.
“I wouldn’t do it without doing it right,” Renfroe said. “When you see one that’s not into it so much, you can tell. I paid $400 for my belt that I’m wearing in that suit. My boots were Harley boots. There’s a coating you can put on them that makes the leather patent leather. I had the ‘SC’ put on there. It’s the details like that. There’s so much you can put into it.”
Santa Claus is coming to town
Santa Claus needs an entire night to travel around the world, and in the weeks leading up to Christmas his preparations keep him just as busy. Even if he can manipulate time, travel at the speed of light and watch the world’s children all year, he can’t physically be everywhere at once.
That’s where people like Renfroe and Jourdan come in.
Imbued with a portion of Santa’s powers and spirit, they travel to different towns to take gift orders and visit with children. Santa appears in almost as many ways as there are snowflakes on a white Christmas. He visits businesses and malls, rides in parades and strolls down city streets. A lucky few have even had him over for a personal visit.
Jourdan prefers public appearances. One of his first Santa gigs was riding on a firetruck in a neighborhood parade.
During the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Jourdan found another way to do the job of Santa. He turned a home office into Santa’s workshop and set up Zoom calls with children.
“It was incredible. It gives more time to the kids. I would give at least 15 minutes and I had a scroll. I would look for their name on the list, and then at the end I would read them ‘The Night Before Christmas,’” Jourdan said.
Renfroe has primarily focused on visits at businesses in Vicksburg and Jackson, but has also appeared at schools and daycares. His favorite, however, is private in-home visits with families.
“One of my favorite gigs is a private visit,” he said. “I’ve had several families that I followed all the way through.”
Renfroe said some people arrange visits on Christmas Eve, but he prefers not to.
“Santa has somewhere else to be on Christmas Eve,” he said with a knowing laugh.
A Santa for all seasons
The Santa business picks up in November and December, but good ones like Renfroe and Jourdan are infused with the Christmas spirit the other 10 months of the year as well.
Renfroe often wears Christmas-themed clothing throughout the year, whether it’s on the golf course or while riding his Harley-Davidson motorcycle. He drives a Corvette that is as red as Santa’s sleigh. He always carries business cards that read, “You met Santa” and hands them to wide-eyed children who spot him without the suit.
“You’ve got to be into it. If you’re not, it’s a job, and it needs to be more than a job,” Renfroe said. “I’ve had kids come up to me when I’m on my motorcycle dressed in my leather and recognize me as Santa.”
Jourdan plays chess and is a veteran actor in community theater troupes in Vicksburg and Clinton. In 1996, Jourdan auditioned for the role of Kris Kringle in the Vicksburg Theatre Guild’s production of “Miracle on 34th Street.” The director wanted him to play the role of the judge instead.
“I said you don’t understand, there’s nobody in this town that can do this part better than I can,” Jourdan said. “I got the part and I’ve been doing theater since. I’ve done ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ twice. It all started with Santa Claus.”
Jourdan likes to ride his bike as well, which has helped him lose 75 pounds from his peak Santa weight.
If children ask why he’s got abs of steel instead of a bowl full of jelly under his Santa coat, Jourdan offers a message about the importance of fitness.
“I tell them Mrs. Claus and the Surgeon General have convinced me I need to get heart healthy. Today’s Santa is slimmer and healthier,” he said with a laugh.
Both Renfroe and Jourdan enjoy being Santa in all settings. Renfroe said people can email him at email@example.com to arrange visits. He’s also looking for a next-generation Santa he can pass the tradition and knowledge to.
For anyone looking to become a part of Santa, Inc., Jourdan has some words of advice — do it for the right reasons. Don’t be naughty, be nice.
“You have to want to do it. Not for the money, but because you enjoy being Santa Claus,” Jourdan said. “You’ve got to want to fill the kids with hope and spirit, and make them think maybe there is a Santa and maybe I will be good for the next three weeks — just in case.”