A few passing vehicles on the bustling U.S. 19-23 highway honked in solidarity of the burly man with the perfectly trimmed white beard and flowing red coat — this timeless, symbolic figure representing all that is good, just and possible during the holiday season. Santa would wave to the anonymous faces, his signature smile beaming up and down the road.
One car abruptly slammed its brakes and yanked itself into the parking lot. A young family popped out to meet Santa, their little boy in his mask shyly approaching jolly ol’ Saint Nick, only to be greeted by a hearty belly laugh.
“Well, it’s been a rough year for a lot of people, and I just want everyone to be healthy and happy,” said Santa. “For Mrs. Claus and I, we get to see the good in people, which is something we need to share in the world. Love one another — that’s our motto. Just think what a happy world this would be if we all loved one another.”
When Santa and Mrs. Claus aren’t busy at the North Pole, they spend their time bouncing between the mountains of Western North Carolina and the beach. And each year around Thanksgiving, they ride through this region in their trusty Ford Expedition, always radiating that pure sense of the Christmas spirit.
“It’s about bringing some normalcy to all of our families and the children, to bring that happiness and joy — we’re proud to be part of that,” said Mrs. Claus. “We get to meet and talk with people from all walks of life, all social backgrounds — the Christmas spirit crosses all social barriers.”
On Saturday, Santa and Mrs. Claus climbed into a Clyde fire truck and were escorted by a Haywood County sheriff to the Red Fox Loop mobile home park a few miles down the road. With the help of Piney Grove Methodist Church in Canton and Red Fox manager Verlin Shuler, dozens of presents were handed out to kids in the park.
Rolling along the swift Pigeon River and under a busy interstate overpass, Santa and Mrs. Claus arrive at Red Fox, which is tucked up on a quaint hillside. If you didn’t know it was there, you’d probably drive by it none the wiser. The duo walked the loop around the park (Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in tow, too), the flashing lights of the fire truck and police car following them.
In the small crowd of parents and children gathered near the entrance to the park, one person mentioned how nice it was for once to see the flashing lights of the sheriff in the park for a positive occasion.
“It’s no secret that this park used to be infected with meth, but it’s a lot better than it was,” Shuler said, holding a large box of gift bags to hand to Santa and give out. “We’ve worked real hard to make the park respectable. I ain’t going to lie, there’s probably still meth in here. I can’t say it’s all gone, I’m no fool. But, the sheriff’s department has continued to work with us to clean it up — the kids here deserve a fair chance.”
Shuler himself is now the guardian of three young children: ages three, five and seven. They aren’t Shuler’s, but he stepped in to help raise them while their mother continues to battle a devastating meth addiction.
“Having Santa here today really goes back to my childhood,” Shuler said, a few tears rolling down the well-earned wrinkles on his face. “I was raised in foster care, and a lot of these kids have been sent to foster care. I can relate to these kids when I see them smile being around Santa. And, for me, it makes me feel great to walk this loop and they be hollering my name.”
Khloe Leatherwood eagerly awaits Santa. (photo: Garret K. Woodward).
Sitting on the tailgate of a 4x4 truck, seven-year-old Khloe Leatherwood had made it just in time for Santa and Mrs. Claus to visit her house. After a day of squirrel hunting with her family, the youngster was overwhelmed by their presence.
“She’s super excited because she hasn’t gotten to see Santa at all. It means so much to lift these children’s spirits,” said Khloe’s mother, Carmon Leatherwood. “It’s been rough for all of us ‘round here. The [kids] have been isolated and haven’t had the best year. It’s such a blessing for Santa, Mrs. Claus and Verlin to do this for these children.”
Words and sentiments so damn common in 2020, seemingly more so for the folks of Red Fox Loop. The cold wind and darkness of winter slowly creeping in for the long haul of the next few months. Handing out toy footballs and sticker books, Santa & Co. continued by each driveway.
Kids in shorts and T-shirts with no shoes running up and down the loop in anticipation of their special guests. Kids dressed in their Sunday’s best emerging from trailers covered in rust spots, the address of the humble abode written crudely in black spray paint next to the front door.
There were adults in wheelchairs in the cold mud, raising their head in gratitude when Santa would move towards them and say hello. And there was this one little girl, probably no more than five or six years old. Blasting out the door of a nearby trailer into the crisp December air, she stopped immediately and waited for the signal from her father to get permission to leave the front yard.
The little girl was pretty much running in place she was so eager to see Santa. With his back to her, she waved and yelled for Santa to finally notice her. Mrs. Claus saw the little girl and motioned for Santa to turn around. He did so and she instantly became this beam of light, of hope and optimism.
Her father lit a cigarette and leaned against an old car, nodding his head to the little girl that it was OK to walk over there, but she had to put on her tiny mask first.
With her mask carefully placed, she bolted for Santa. She hugged him. He smiled and handed her a small gift. She thanked him and ran back to her dad finishing up his smoke, the two of them heading back together into the warmth of the trailer.
“The most important part is to have that caring, loving and sharing of your heart — not just at Christmas, but year-round,” said Mrs. Claus. “That is the spirit and magic of Christmas. It comes from within your heart and your soul. Seeing the magic in the eyes of others, children of all ages — it’s a wonderful feeling.”
Editor’s Note: Though we here at The Smoky Mountain News aim to respect the anonymity and subtle, sincere magic of Santa & Mrs. Claus as they make their way back to the North Pole, besides wishing all of Western North Carolina a Merry Christmas and happy holiday season, they told us you can reach them by clicking on www.smokeymountainsantawnc.com. Any and all messages will be warmly welcomed.
The Smokey Mountain Santa paid a special visit to the Red Fox Loop mobile home park in Clyde this past weekend.