Throughout the year, Michael Bennett can be found in the deli-bakery department at Kroger.
But at Columbia Middle School on Wednesday, Bennett changed hats to become one of the most valued confidants to children and adults.
"It's Santa Claus!," said kindergartner Samaria Hall, as Bennett opened the car door for her with a hearty, "Ho, ho, ho!"
Bennett, also known as Santa, has become a regular attraction at the school each year, where he greets students, parents and staff as they arrive and then visits classes throughout the day.
"The kids will ask me, 'What's your name,' and I'll say Saint Nicholas. And They'll say, 'What's your name?' and I'll say Santa Claus. And they'll say, 'What's your name?' and I'll say Pappy Noel. I'll go down the whole list," Bennett said.
He took on the new persona after injuring his hand in a work-related accident at Kroger in 1983. Because he couldn't perform his regular duties, a store manager asked him whether he would like to be the store's Santa. He's been dressing up every year since, though now he goes to South Columbia Elementary school where his two children attend.
"The first year I played Santa there, (Principal Donna Murray) asked all the teachers if they wanted me to visit and all said yes except the fifth grade teachers," Bennett said. "Usually when they're in fifth grade, the students do and don't believe, and those who do don't want their other friends to see they believe. When school started back after the holidays, she said please go to the fifth grade next year because the students were so disappointed."
This is the fifth year he's played Santa at South Columbia. And it takes some work. He has a costume , beard and hair. But, there's the matter of donning white eyebrows and the right rose colored makeup to make Santa's cheeks, nose and lips that jolly shade of red..
Santa greets kindergartner Madison Orr as she arrives for school Wednesday.
Photo by Jim Blaylock
And then there's a trip to the store to get the candy canes he'll distribute to all the staff and children, "The big ones, not the little ones."
"It's very enjoyable," Bennett said. "Parents and children alike always smile and enjoy seeing Santa and talking to Santa. You have to really have the Christmas spirit in your heart to do that."
And besides a good ear, being Santa takes a sturdy lap.
Throughout the day Wednesday, Bennet welcomed the children on his lap to hear their most heartfelt desires.
"I want a My Size Rapunzel Barbie," kindergartner Verena Miller requested.
Jay Allen asked Santa for a Transformer, while classmate Brandon VanArsdale told Santa he wanted a toy gun.
"I've never had a child ask for anything truly out of the ordinary," he said. "Usually, they would like to have a puppy, specific toys or different games. When I go to see them, the first thing I ask is if they have written their letter to Santa. I let them know I've been watching them. Some have been very good and some have been partial to lean either way."
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