For many children, Christmas hope takes the appearance of a kind, ruddy man in a red velvet suit and hat. But since the real Santa has to check his extensive naughty-or-nice list twice before Christmas Eve, he appoints special men to play his part.
Columbia County officials Tom Mercer and Charlie Beale help Santa figure out what children want by encouraging them to divulge their Christmas wishes. More importantly, they give children a sense of the magic and hope of the Christmas season.
"If you ever put on a Santa Claus suit and one kid sat on your lap, you'd be hooked," said Tom Mercer, a Columbia County commissioner. "I represent hope and happiness to them. That's what I'm about, making the kids smile."
Mercer, 62, plays Santa at Fat Man's Forest in Augusta on the weekends. Although his position on the Columbia County Board of Commissioners keeps him busy, Mercer finds time to visit day cares, schools and Alzheimer's patients in his Santa suit - all free of charge.
He recently played Santa in a commercial for radio station WSLT-FM (98.3). The station paid him $100, which he promptly donated to the Golden Harvest Food Bank.
Santa Claus, played by Columbia County Commissioner Tom Mercer, and Mrs. Claus, played by Mary Dukes, lead a Christmas sing-along at the Adult Day Care Center at the Alzheimers Association.
Photo by Jim Blaylock
If Santa Claus provides holiday smiles, his southern cousin Bubba Claus incurs Christmas hoots. Columbia County Recreation Manager Charlie Beale is Bubba Claus. He wears overalls and a plaid shirt, drinks RC Cola and eats Moon Pies.
"Santa is overloaded, so he had to contract out some of his duties to his cousin," Beale said. "Bubba's sleigh is pulled by eight howling hound dogs."
The idea for Bubba Claus came to Beale recently, and this is the first year he has implemented it. So far, Bubba Claus has entertained at a judges' Christmas party, a sheriff's office party and the county Christmas tree-lighting ceremony.
Beale has played Santa for the past six years. This year, he played Santa at day-care centers and for senior citizens.
Whether provoking laughs or prompting smiles, Columbia County's Santas are chiefly concerned with spreading the Christmas spirit.
"I was sitting at Fat Man's one night with Mrs. Claus," Mercer said. "A 4-year-old boy climbed on my lap and told me what he wanted. Then, he looked at me, and just as serious as he could be, he said that what he really wanted was for his grandpa to get better. He had been sick for a long time.
"I told him that I couldn't make him better, but that I talk to someone every night, and I would ask Him to make the boy's grandpa well. That little boy was thinking about other people."
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