Personal Stories of America at Work
Santa the Mensch
Believe it: Jac Grimes, a bus driver, really is Santa Claus
“If Santa Claus had a day job, it would be a school bus driver, right? And he would adopt foster children, like those with HIV, right? And he would volunteer in children’s hospice programs? Santa Jac does all those things and truly loves his job. A native of Greensboro, North Carolina, Jac is a natural storyteller with a Southern drawl. No one-word answers from this Santa! And yes, I did some fact-checking to make sure he was for real, because I was so moved and wanted to be sure I wasn’t being taken for a (sleigh) ride. I hope you enjoy this story, which shares the spirit of the holiday season, no matter what your religion.”
– Molly Rosen, Chronicler and Managing Editor
Are you really HIM?
Here’s how it started: It was the Christmas season of 2005. I hadn’t shaved since Labor Day. The day before Christmas break, I was driving a bus at an elementary school I’d never been to, driving kids I’d never seen, as a substitute bus driver for our county. I decided awhile ago that spending all my life working and traveling as a management consultant wasn’t going to work for me. My kids were growing up, and I wasn’t around a lot of the time. So after running a local video store for nine years, I decided that driving a school bus would be fun. At the same time, my beard was turning white—it was more gray and white than it was red.
I’d had a habit of wearing a Santa hat around the holidays. The kids got on the bus, and there sat a guy—me—in a lightweight red jacket and a Santa hat with a gray beard. And I’m rotund anyway. The kindergartners and first-graders got on first. One of them asked, “Are you really HIM?” I wondered to myself how far I could take it, so I said, “Yes, I really am him. Your parents told me that you were really good this year, but I had to come see for myself.” School buses are usually loud and chaotic, with paper balls flying and kids whining—you could have heard a pin drop. Even the fifth-graders played along. I thought, if I can do that in a $6 Santa hat, what could I do if I really pursued this?
The next week we went to the Greensboro Christmas parade. It’s like the Macy’s parade, but not as big of course. Santa comes by on a float in a cheap suit with a fake beard. I looked at my wife, Liz, and said, “I can do a better job than that without any effort!” The next year I was on the float and have been in the parade ever since.
Just an old man with gray whiskers
My original inspiration for the Santa job came from a few places. Back around 1995, there was a guy at our church, Dean, who was a pharmaceutical sales rep. His company had a policy of no facial hair. He threw his razor away when he retired and became a professional Santa Claus. When my three-year-old daughter saw Dean at church, she said, “Mommy, Santa Claus goes to our church—look!” Liz assured her that it wasn’t Santa Claus, just an old man with gray whiskers. Later, they were at the mall, and who was sitting in the chair? Same guy. And my daughter said, as only a three-year-old can, with absolute certainty, “I TOLD you that was Santa Claus!”
Fast-forward fifteen years: We have five adopted children, and then my wife gets pregnant. One of our adopted children, Robbie, had HIV—we knew when we adopted him. Once, when he was going through a particularly rough spell, I stood up at church to explain why they hadn’t seen him or my wife in awhile. Dean, the professional Santa Claus, approached me and said, “I’m going to some parties this week. Do you think Liz would mind if I stopped in to see Robbie, since it doesn’t look like he’ll be able to get out and see Santa this Christmas?” Robbie was about seven at the time. Dean came in, decked out in his Santa attire. He spent time with Robbie and even brought him a little something. It meant a lot. Robbie died ten years later, at age seventeen.
I have five kids grown and gone, and one son who was a fortieth birthday present. He is a trumpet player at a school for the arts. I also have two foster children who live here, one of whom is a sixteen-year-old non-verbal autistic child, and a seventeen-year-old child who is developmentally delayed.
The spirit of humankind
I am a Universalist-Unitarian. I stand in awe and wonder at the magnificent universe around us. The values that are important to a Unitarian Universalist are respect for the planet, respect for each other, peace, and trying to get along. Modern UUs embrace wisdom from different religions, such as Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism.
My Santa portrayal is more secular than a lot of professional Santa Clauses. Over the course of a season, I see Muslim kids and Jewish kids, and I tell them it’s OK. Christmas doesn’t have to be tied to a particular religion. Christmas is about giving and love and the spirit of humankind—getting along with each other in a peaceful way. I tell them that every child is special. Santa Claus loves all children.
Bringing a sense of normal
Some of the most rewarding experiences are visiting kids who are dying. Santa has had a difficult time getting into hospice because hospice requires all the people who interact with their clients to hang their faith on the hook by the door as they go in.
I work with Kids’ Path, our local hospice. I already had a relationship with them because my son, Robbie, was a client. They already knew my theology. They knew I wouldn’t have a problem rolling into any situation and being a comfort to the family. We need to go in there and be jolly. That’s what these families need because they are dealing with illness every day. They need a sense of normal. When Santa comes in with a bag of presents, he brings a sense of normal. Having been in that situation, I know what a sense of normal can mean to a family.
My first hospice visit was to a Mexican immigrant family whose five-year-old girl had a terminal brain tumor. It was in September. She was paralyzed from the mid-torso down. Her face was paralyzed. When I walked in, she raised her arm to me and smiled at me with her eyes. I entered the room, dressed in my Santa suit, with a bag full of toys donated by a local toy company over my back. The toy company had sent a lot of princess stuff, including a princess set, with a tiara and a magic wand.
A few weeks later, her case manager called and left a message to tell me that the girl had passed away. I went to the family service. They were Catholic and had an open casket. They had dressed her in her traditional colorful Mexican clothing, with her magic wand in her hand and her tiara on.
That was my best and my worst day on this job.
Almost caught in the act
I sometimes do Santa Claus home visits. The first one I did was with a family of three girls: ages five, seven, and ten. They first came to see me with their mom at a department store. The mom and I had already been emailing back and forth, so I knew the girls’ names and the parents’ names.
When I called them by name, I totally amazed the ten-year-old, who was already feeling she was way past all this Santa Claus stuff. Later, I went to the house to plan the entry and escape route with the parents. I wrote out letters to each of the girls with very personalized information. At 5 a.m. on Christmas Day, I came into their house. The ten-year-old caught me in the act of filling her stocking. The five-year-old had made me sausage balls and poured me Mountain Dew—not the usual cookies and milk. After I had talked with them for a bit, I explained that it was getting light and I was going to have to make my way west to California. I directed them towards the kitchen counter, where I said I had put out a gift for them. While they were in the kitchen, I slipped out the back door. Unfortunately, I left my toy bag hanging on a chair, so I had to sneak back in to get it. They didn’t catch me.
I want you forever
When I was a kid and struggling a bit in school, my father told me, “I don’t care what you do as a career. If you want to be a lawyer, a policeman, or fireman, it’s OK. But I want you to do the best job you can possibly do.” It stuck with me. So when I decided to become Santa Claus, I decided that my portrayal should be as accurate as possible. That means I not only want the kids to believe, but I also want the adults to recapture part of their childhood. Santa is about childhood, but it isn’t just about children.
When I was a child, Santa was magical and largely unseen. Our family had a tradition of opening one gift Christmas Eve, but those were always from my parents. Santa brought the good stuff, always unwrapped and assembled. The assembled part had no real meaning to me until I had kids. The first time I saw a real bearded Santa was as an adult when I had small children. I believe that kids are smart and know when they are in the presence of someone’s uncle in a cheap suit with a fake beard. I try to do as real a portrayal as is humanly possible for both the kids and the adults. The kids want to believe, and the adults write the checks.
I’m proud of what I do. Last year, my final gig of the season was Lincoln Financial, downtown, in the tallest building in Greensboro. I walked across the walkway, which looks out over the city, and I thought, “This is MY city. I have accomplished everything I wanted to as Santa in this city.” I got into my red PT cruiser convertible with the license plate SLEIGH. I love feeling the wind where my hair used to be. There’s even room in the back for toys.
I make almost as much during my six weeks as a professional Santa as I do all the rest of the year driving a yellow school bus. Even so, these Santa gigs don’t pay very well. But once you get work and they’re happy with you, it’s yours. It’s in perpetuity. I did a parade recently. I talked with the parade chair and asked, “Can I put you down for next year?” And he said, “You can put me down for the next ten years! I want you forever.”
People have said to me, “Boy, you sure do have an easy job!” And I answer, laughing, “Sure, just sittin’ in a chair, right?”
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