When the kids run around in Oxford, N.C., in the summer and see town staple Charlie Easton and his full white beard hanging well below his chin, they ask the inevitable question: Is he Santa?
“What I tell them is that I’m Santa’s best friend and I help him out,” says Easton.
And it’s this time of the year when Easton, 76, says he helps his friend out the most by embodying the jolly old elf, donning the red suit as “Santa” Charlie in holiday parades and at Triangle malls and private functions.
“It’s the best job I ever had,” says Easton, who graduated from NC State’s Agricultural Institute and worked for 35 years in the textile industry. “I tell people I’m just a granddaddy whose grandchildren got too big to sit on his lap. So now I get to hold everybody else’s.”
Easton can be seen regularly sitting on his throne at Crabtree Valley Mall in Raleigh, his main station for helping Santa out the last seven years. He started about 10 years ago when he first rode as Kris Kringle in the Oxford Christmas parade. He has his own Santa business card and had to go through a job interview that would objectify candidates if it was any other profession. “They just look at you and see what you look like,” Easton says.
His routine starts in early November with his annual swig of cold medicine to fight the cough he knows he’s going to get. He and other area Santas get a tour at Toys “R” Us to acquaint themselves with what the children ask for. The only day Easton gets off during the season is Thanksgiving. He works in four-to-five-hour shifts and will continue to hold babies and judge the naughty and nice right up until 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve.
Every Christmas season, Easton comes up with a theme to develop. This year, it includes his charge to each child who sits on his lap with telling their parents they love them on Christmas morning. (“That’s the greatest gift they can give,” he says.) And he has a little toy, Pete the Penguin, which he says is usually a pretty good remedy to get an unruly or scared child engaged.
There are his regulars who come by, like a group of ladies who are in their 90s who come by every year to have their picture taken with him. And there are always firsts for him, like last year when he got to hold 9-month-old quintuplets.
Or like the time when a daughter requested her mother and father sit on his lap for a pic, only to be surprised by their other daughter, who had been deployed in Afghanistan for 15 months, popping around the corner. “Everybody cried that day,” he says. “Even Santa.”
In his decade of evoking Santa’s spirit, Easton has seen things change. He’s had to deal with the explosion of Elf on the Shelf, the popular toy that “watches” children’s behavior up until the day of Christmas. Children’s wants have changed from footballs and dolls to iPhones and iPads.
And kids have become more inquisitive about how Santa delivers all those toys. “You know, a lot of houses don’t have chimneys,” he says. “I tell them I have a mouse that can get in their house and let me in.”
But what hasn’t changed is Easton’s sense of joy this time of year and his faith in the spirit of Christmas.
“You’d be surprised at the number of children who come up and ask that all the children who don’t have anything get a present from me this year,” he says. “I still believe in Santa.”