BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — LaFain Freeman is “Santa Claus.”
At least, that’s how most who know him prefer it.
It’s who he’s looked like since he grew out his beard 15 years ago. For the better part of 60 years, it’s who he’s transformed into every Christmas at countless events, visiting countless children across Alabama and most of the Southeast.
Freeman’s first time in the big red suit and white beard came one day in 1957 when his father—also a Santa— was too sick to keep his gig at the Sears store in Anniston. It didn’t take long for the 17-year-old Freeman to get hooked.
“What captivated me most was when a total stranger who was not otherwise looking in my direction was so elated by my presence that they became giddy,” Freeman said. “I just felt like that was my calling.”
For decades, Freeman has made Santa appearances anywhere from corporate events to malls to church services. In October, a biography of Freeman’s life was published called “With A Twinkle In His Eye: The Life and Legend of Santa LaFain.”
Being Santa is more than a job for the former state trooper. It’s been the joy of his life.
“There are a number of families whose children who have grown up knowing no other Santa but me,” he said.
Dr. Anthony Fauci recently insisted to children that Santa Claus was immune from the coronavirus, but like many across the country, even Santa isn’t immune from the hard times brought on by the pandemic. This Christmas, social distancing and health restrictions have left many local Santa Claus actors with less work and less connection with the children they do it all for.
Everyone puts on the suit for a reason. Steve Rusk’s came in 1988 when his freemason brothers at the Birmingham Scottish Rite needed someone to play Santa Claus for a children’s fundraiser.
That day, “Santa Ruskie” was born.
“I like making children happy,” Rusk said. “It is a source of income, but that’s not what it is all about.”
For the last six years, Rusk has been a “real bearded Santa,” a Santa actor with a real white beard and hair, making seasonal work out of playing Saint Nick.
“If you’re a decent looking Santa, you stay busy,” Rusk said.
Things are different this year. Many places that would’ve hired Rusk and others last year have either closed their lobbies or have not used them due to health guidelines.
“That all went away,” Birmingham Santa Steve Pennington said of the many corporate and office Santa gigs that were his mainstays.
For Pennington, a music teacher who has been called “Singing Santa” for his time working around Birmingham since 1982, safety is the biggest concern, not just for the children, but for the Santas as well, many of whom he said are typically 65 or older, overweight and with their own health issues to worry about.
“They may assume that Santa is overweight and 65, but they can’t know that every Santa may have diabetes or might have had a heart attack,” he said.
Freeman, who turned 80 this year, has done what he can to keep himself safe by wearing a mask wherever he goes. This year at the Festival of Lights in Oxford, Freeman took pictures with the children as he stood behind them from a distance.
Pennington said if he takes pictures, it will be from a distance and with no prior contact.
“You have a lot of parents that are very fearful of that, because they want their kids to have that experience,” he said. “I want them to have that experience.”
Not being able to bond with children is what hurts Freeman the most this year.
“There’s not the camaraderie that Santa is able to establish with a child,” Freeman said.” When you have a child who is afraid of Santa, sometimes that Santa can win over that child over and encourage the child to talk to you. When you can’t be near them, it’s difficult.”
Rusk said that despite fewer gigs this season, the jobs he has been able to book this year have felt all the more special for those who have been struggling during the pandemic this year.
“Some people are just looking for an escape and to have an upbeat Santa,” he said. “It gets people in a good mood about the whole situation.”
Pennington believes next Christmas will be better.
“I am seeing a lot of people hopeful for things to come,” he said.
Despite Christmas looking very different for him this year, Freeman believes the message he tries to give as Santa remains the same.
“Santa is a character that opens the minds of children to the spirit of giving and allows a unique opportunity to teach them the real reason for the season,” he said.
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