Becoming Santa Claus
Russ Gordon lives the meaning of Christmas
Photos by RAW Images and Contributed
Nearly a decade ago, standing next to a red-faced child who was distraught and crying, Russ Gordon started singing the words to “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” in the middle of a grocery store. The child, captivated by the man dressed in casual clothes shopping for groceries, stopped the tears and was instantly soothed.
Gordon winked at the child’s parents and made his way home. The interaction was one of many he said pointed him toward the idea of becoming Santa Claus.
It was 2011 when Gordon first had the idea after his wife, Linda, asked him to grow a beard. Gordon said he was surprised that at 57 years old, the new facial hair was mostly white. “It had few little gray streaks in it then, but not many,” Gordon said.
His new look started catching attention. “I’d walk into Kroger or Walmart, and I’m walking down the aisle, and all of the sudden I feel arms around my thigh. I look down, and here’s a 3- or 4-year-old saying, ‘Santa!’ It was pretty cool,” he recounted. “That’s where I began to get the idea, ‘Maybe I could be a Santa Claus.’”
A particular instance happened at a Waffle House on Christmas morning, when a small child mistook him for the man who left his presents the night before. Gordon said he and Linda decided to eat breakfast that morning because they arrived to church an hour early, forgetting the service time had been moved. He said he believes that was providence rather than a coincidence. Gordon played along with the child, asking which gifts Santa had left were his favorites – and when the couple left, Gordon said there was no doubt in his mind that he was called to become Santa Claus.
Gordon said he has not always been a people person, but emulating the persona of St. Nick has taught him to embrace that side of himself.
“That skill is God–given through painful experience, and you can’t fake it. The smile has to not only be on the mouth; it has to be in the eyes,” he said. “It takes a tremendous amount of effort and concentration to make every child feel like they are the only one in the room with Santa, and it’s something that starts off with the first smile, the first wink or the first contact.”
Gordon now teaches others how to become Santa Claus and how to use the hobby–turned–passion as a mission field. He teaches a course at the Northern Lights Santa Academy in Atlanta on how to share faith while in character. A devoted Baptist, Gordon said he has spent his entire life called to ministry in some form or fashion. “My life has been about doing ministry. No matter what job I was doing or where life took me, it’s been all about ministry.”
At 20 years old, he and Linda married in 1973. He had been a pre–med major before feeling called to work in the church. He began teaching science classes at Alliance Christian School in Vestavia Hills in the mid–70s, and after his tenure there, Gordon joined the U.S. Army.
While in the Army, he and Linda moved all over the United States and even lived in Germany for a few years in the early ’80s. Gordon said at each stop along the journey – whether in Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, New Concord, Ohio, Ft. Benning, Georgia, or Wiesbaden, Germany – he always found a way to stay involved in ministry. He worked as a music minister or a pastor at many of the small country churches where he and Linda were members while stationed at nearby Army bases.
After returning to the United States, Gordon earned a degree in business management from Jacksonville State University in 1983 and his Master of Divinity in May 1987. He stayed in the Army Reserve as a captain and the Alabama National Guard until 2004, when he retired as a lieutenant colonel with more than 29 years of service, nine on active duty.
Now most of his weekends from October through December are spent as Santa Claus, and his calendar is booked nearly a year in advance – and Gordon said he wouldn’t change a thing. He said he’s thankful for every opportunity he’s had to minister to people.
Reflecting on his early years as the “jolly old elf,” Gordon said he remembers having lunch with a fellow Santa Claus portrayer in Huntsville one afternoon who told him it “takes something special about a man to ‘pull off’ Santa Claus.” Gordon said his friend told him, ‘You’ve got the look, but that won’t make you a good Santa. You might love children, but that won’t make you a good Santa. It has to resonate with you. If you ever get to the point where it consumes you and you feel compelled by it, that’s when you know you’ll be a good Santa.’ For me,” Gordon said, “the calling has to come from God – and it did.”
Among his holiday activities, Gordon attends an annual convention in Gatlinburg, Tenn., called the Santa Family Reunion. The event brings thousands of Santa Claus actors together to share their stories and passions with one another. The first time he ever wore his Santa suit was in Gatlinburg.
Among his many portrayals was an appearance as the Santa Claus at the helm of the Hartselle Christmas parade a number of years ago when Gregg Turk was too ill to participate. No matter the parade, luncheon, convention or school or church visit, Gordon’s mission through it all remains the same: “I must be involved in ministry, and if I can’t be, then I will be wasting my time,” he said. “I felt called to do this, and I have repeatedly been affirmed by other Santas who also consider it a calling from God. Everywhere I go, every child I see, I am in a prayerful attitude throughout the visit, asking God to tell me when and what to say.”
Taking his Santa Claus persona to the next level, Gordon is working on his newest project: The Littlest Christmas Tree Farm. Located on Ausley Bend Road in Hartselle, Gordon said he hopes his Christmas trees – some of which are already 6-8 feet tall – will be ready at the end of November. On his farm, Gordon grows Virginia Pines and Carolina Sapphires – more than 2,000 of them. A short drought last year cost Gordon 800 trees, but that didn’t stop him from planting their replacements. He plants at least 1,000 trees annually.
In their limited free time, the Gordons can be found delivering the Hartselle Enquirer every week, a position he has held for six years. The pair are also heavily involved in a local homeschool group, where they teach science and robotics classes.
The Gordons have three children and nine grandchildren.