It takes a special person to be a Santa. Of course, a beard helps, as does a little extra girth. But perhaps the most important trait is wanting to make children happy, even under the worst circumstances.
That’s one reason Lone Star Santas came into being and why the group is thriving today.
Lone Star Santas is the largest regional Santa Claus organization in the world. The nonprofit group is composed of Texans who portray Santa Claus, Mrs. Claus, elves and other helpers. And their work isn’t just limited to the Christmas season—they are on call year-round to provide disaster relief. Though the group engages in a significant amount of charitable work, its beginnings are humble: The impetus was a simple neighborly request.
“It all started when I was asked to be Santa for our local homeowners association late in 2006,” said founder Jim Fletcher. “I didn’t have a beard, but I was a bit rotund. The subdivision said they had a suit. I tried it on, but it was too small, so I went to a costume shop, purchased a good starter suit and boots, and then realized I really didn’t know much about being Santa.”
Through some internet research and a book titled How To Be Santa Claus, Fletcher learned the basics. “We did our first gig for the neighborhood using the cheap fake beard that came with the subdivision suit,” he said. “From that moment on, I was hooked.”
Fletcher’s passion for performing as Santa was so strong, he began to search around the state for other Santas who wanted to “go pro.” He eventually found Gene Clayton, who was doing Santa gigs around the small town of Carmine, near Brenham. They met for lunch and hit it off immediately. They decided to form a statewide fraternal Santas organization, first organized as an Excel spreadsheet listing all known Santas in Texas. Their only caveat was that the group would never become a national organization.
They also made sure that the group would be inclusive, including real-bearded and designer-bearded Santas as well as Mrs. Clauses, elves, reindeer herders and those with the spirit of Christmas in their hearts who lived or worked in Texas. They would not discriminate based on sex, race, creed, politics or sexual orientation. They did, however, require annual background checks.
From the two founders, the group grew exponentially in just a few years, but the major turning point for the organization came in 2011. On May 22 of that year, an EF-5 tornado hit Joplin, Missouri, killing 158 people and injuring more than 1,000 others.
“When I heard the news, I was taking a shower and had a vision of our Santas going to Joplin with a load of toys to give out,” Fletcher said. “We asked our members to contact their local churches, neighborhoods, friends and businesses to collect new toys. The response was immediate and overwhelming. We rented three trailers, taped our Lone Star Santas banners to the sides of the trailers, and on June 2, we headed for Joplin. We had no idea what we were doing. We had two trailers with toys and another trailer with a grill, propane tanks and enough food to feed a small army.”
At every stop for gas and at rest stops, people donated to their mission. By the time they got to Oklahoma City, they had collected nearly $1,000. They stopped at a Walmart and used that money to purchase more toys. The Walmart even gave the group a discount and donated more toys for the children in the affected area.
Setting up at a church in Joplin, they welcomed a parade of children, many with just the clothes on their backs, who were in for a much-needed surprise. A dozen Santas, Mrs. Clauses, elves and helpers gave out more than 3,500 new toys to the children who so badly needed a sense of normalcy.
“On the way home, we knew this was to be the mission of Lone Star Santas—to provide love, hope, joy, toys and hugs directly to children and families affected by natural disasters,” Fletcher said.
Eventually, they became more organized and elected a board of directors, earned nonprofit tax status and even wrote a how-to book for members.
They also defined their mission, which is the cornerstone of the group to this day: “I will seek knowledge to be well versed in the mysteries of bringing Christmas cheer and goodwill to all the people that I encounter in my journeys and travels. I shall be dedicated to hearing the secret dreams of both children and adults. I understand that the true and only gift I can give, as Santa, is myself. I acknowledge that some of the requests I will hear will be difficult and sad. I know in these difficulties there lays an opportunity to bring a spirit of warmth, understanding and compassion. I know the ‘real reason for the season’ and know that I am blessed to be able to be a part of it. I realize that I belong to a brotherhood and will be supportive, honest and show fellowship to my peers. I promise to use ‘my’ powers to create happiness, spread love and make fantasies come to life in the true and sincere tradition of the Santa Claus legend. I pledge myself to these principles as a descendant of St. Nicholas, the gift giver of Myra.”
It was right around the time of the Joplin tornado that Giles Debenport became involved in the group.
“My wife and I started doing private events at Dewberry Farms during the Christmas season,” said Debenport, whose wife, Kristen, portrays Mrs. Claus. “We also did private events for Habitat for Humanity.”
One of Debenport’s most rewarding moments came when he and Kristen joined other Santas to surprise victims of flooding from Hurricane Harvey in 2017 at Houston’s NRG Center, which was serving as a shelter for thousands of displaced families.
“That was a truly rewarding experience,” Debenport said. “I’ve had so many of those since becoming a Santa. I didn’t even have a beard when I started, but I asked my wife if she would mind if I grew one, and she said to go for it. Now I think I’d be in real trouble if I ever shaved it off.”
Debenport has had some very unique experiences as a Santa. One in particular, which occurred when he was playing Santa for an optical company, brought tears to his eyes.
“This woman approached me kind of sheepishly,” Debenport said. “She asked if I would mind if she sat on my lap and told me her Christmas wishes. I told her I wouldn’t mind at all. She sat down and almost immediately began to cry. She told me that the reason she was so emotional was because in her entire life, she had never sat on Santa’s lap. It’s moments like that one that really make you realize what an impact you can make, even with something as small as letting someone sit on your lap.”
Of course, there have been some embarrassing moments, too.
“I was driving to an appearance in Hempstead from my home in Katy,” Debenport said. “I was running late, so I put my costume on at home and got in the car, wasting no time hitting the gas. About halfway there, I noticed the flashing lights of a state trooper behind me. As I started to slow down and pull over, I realized that I was way over the speed limit. The officer approached the car and as I rolled down my window, I heard laughing.”
“You had the reindeer going a little fast,” the officer said.
“Yes sir,” Debenport replied. “I’m on my way to put smiles on kids’ faces.”
“Well, I can’t bring myself to give Santa a ticket, so just watch your speed and get there safely.”
Debenport said he drove the speed limit the rest of the way and made it on time, not to mention giving the state trooper a story to tell his colleagues back at the station.
In addition to its charity work, Lone Star Santas also provides the Find-A-Santa service through its website, where anyone can find a certified Santa for their holiday gatherings, whether it be a private home visit, a birthday party or even a company party.
Each of the organization’s professional Santas are independent contractors for hire, and they set their own prices depending on the size and time expectations of an event and whether clients want Mrs. Claus or elves to be part of the visit. Clients can choose from hundreds of Santas, listed by region.
Through their years of spreading joy throughout the region, Lone Star Santas members realized there were many others working to share the same spirit. “These are people that may not look like us, bearded and hefty, but they hold to the same principles and have the same joy of giving, not just at Christmas but year around,” Fletcher said.
As a result, Lone Star Santas set out to recognize these people and let them know that their good deeds have earned them a position on Santa’s “nice list.” In 2015, the group created the Spirit of Christmas Legacy Award, given to people who may not be a Santa but who demonstrate the Christmas spirit year-round.
“This good, coming from their hearts, demonstrates that these individuals do have the spirit of Christmas in their actions and ensures their good deeds will be a lasting legacy so that others will feel the same spirit and do kind, good and wonderful things,” Fletcher said.
Past winners of the Spirit of Christmas Legacy Award include Houston philanthropist and retailer Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale, automotive dealership owner Tony Gullo, cancer survivor Sadie Keller, and Scott and Phil Medlin, owners of Santa’s Wonderland in College Station.
Not including the most recent flooding from Hurricane Imelda, Lone Star Santas have organized 18 Convoys of Toys, distributing toys to children after natural disasters, including to shelters in Houston, Dallas, Nacogdoches, Port Arthur and Beaumont in Harvey’s aftermath. They even sent one Santa to four different locations in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria struck the island in 2017.
Anyone interested in utilizing the services of a Santa or Mrs. Claus can find out more information by visiting lonestarsantas.org.