Wayland employees, alums enjoy roles as "Santa's helpers"

December 16, 2010

It’s not difficult to see what season is coming up if you hang around Wes Cox or Rodney Watson often. Around August or September, both begin sporting extra facial hair, preparing for a special role that both cherish at the holiday season.

Cox, who manages the bookstore at Wayland Baptist University’s Lubbock Campus, and Watson, director of the Museum of the Llano Estacado at Wayland’s Plainview Campus, both spend much of December donning red suits and hats and filling the role of Santa Claus. 

Both relish the role and the joy it brings to children they encounter But aside from the similarities of the character they portray and their basic experiences, Cox and Watson had very different instances of their foray into the world of the Jolly Old Elf.

Cox was volunteering with University Medical Center as a weekend chaplain and especially enjoyed visiting the pediatric unit. As the winter approached, his beard was getting full, a thick, pure white expanse across his face. One of the childlife specialists at UMC noticed his resemblance to St. Nick – particularly the full beard – and asked if he would play Santa for the annual breakfast for the children on the unit. Having volunteered for many years with wife Barbara for the Children’s Miracle Network, Cox jumped at the chance to impact the lives of sick children. He rented a costume locally for the role and still remembers his reaction six years later.

“I was sharing in a staff meeting at the Lubbock campus about the whole experience and how moving it was,” he said. “I couldn’t keep speaking because I got choked up. I just ended up pointing upward, wanting to give God the glory.” 

From then on, Cox was hooked. He began researching options to buy his own suit since he wasn’t fond of the rented piece and wanted some more comfortable options. But the suits weren’t cheap.

Little did he know that a coworker at WBU-Lubbock was on the case. So moved by his experience, she took up donations from the campus employees toward a new suit, encouraging them to support this endeavor as Cox’s special ministry. The next year, about a week before the stint at UMC, the staff presented a new suit to Cox during a weekly meeting, once more moving him to tears.

“They said they wanted me to enjoy the ministry God had given me. I just signed ‘thank you’ because I couldn’t speak,” he said.

Besides the annual hospital breakfast – Cox just did his sixth one recently – he has done private parties, churches, nursing homes and other events dressed in the red suit. After that first solo act, he brought wife Barbara, who earned her degree at WBU-Lubbock in 2006, into the picture as Mrs. Claus, ordering her a special costume with an apron and hat. She often hands out candy canes and visits with children, and Cox finds that Mrs. Claus often breaks the ice for some of the more shy children.

Watson was working at Hale County State Bank more than a decade ago when he got roped into his first gig. A pair of Rod Stewart concert tickets from his boss came with a warning: “This is going to cost you.” Just days later, Watson learned the payoff would involve him playing Santa for the bank’s annual holiday open house featuring music and goodies. He reserved the Santa suit at the local costume shop that summer and began researching options for a beard that would look realistic, choosing a theatrical wig for the first few years.

“After coming to Wayland, I realized that my formerly red beard from my starving-artist days had turned gray, and I began to grow my own beard,” Watson said. “I have learned that the real beards scare fewer kids than the fake one does, and it is so much more comfortable than gluing on the fake stuff.” 

He also called upon his artistic talents to design a unique Santa suit that would still retain the integrity of the American tradition of St. Nick. His mother sewed the version he still wears for his many appearances.

Cox and Watson share many similarities in their experiences, such as the funny and touching stories of visits with children who, indeed, will say and do anything.

“After a few days of doing Santa, I asked one kid what he wanted for Christmas,” Watson recalled. “He looked at me with disgust and reminded me that he had just told me last night.”

Watson also recalled the young man who – when lifted onto Santa’s lap – passed gas rather loudly and got the entire lobby tickled. Another boy, got Watson tickled when he shared sweetly during a radio “Calls to Santa” show what his siblings wanted, then gave his own wish list: “I want a gun so I can kill something.”

Cox said he has heard all types of funny requests, but the experiences at UMC are particularly touching from year to year.

“The joy is seeing some of the kids we’ve seen for five years and how they’re getting better. Their attitude is so positive, and some recognize that I’m the same Santa and they joke with me,” he said. “Hearing them say they are in remission since last year is so great. We just rejoice with them and tell them we’ll keep praying for them. As they get older, whatever their perception of Santa is, they’ll know that that person was not impersonal but was interested in their lives.”

Cox said he begins researching the hot toy trends in September so he’ll be able to talk more about what the children are requesting. That tip came after a request from one boy for a Transformer immediately had Cox thinking of electrical gear instead of the convertible toys.

Even during the joyful holiday season, Santas often experience those tear jerker moments as well. For Watson, it is requests for food, for a father to get out of jail or for family drama to be resolved that really touch his heart.

“We just don’t realize how blessed we are until small children sit in your lap and ask for the things that most of us take for granted,” he said.

Cox recalled being choked up after a young boy would only whisper his request to Santa, saying, “I want my daddy to quit beating my mom and my brothers.” Unsure how to respond, he told the boy, “We’ll see what we can do.”

Both Santas say the full beard even gets them mistaken for the real St. Nick when they’re not in costume, even after Christmas has passed. Watson recalled a pair of young moms and three little girls staring intently during a meal with son Carey at Jason’s Deli in Lubbock. Watson’s confirmation to the mother that he was indeed the real Santa resulted in chaos.

“Within three seconds, I was sitting in the floor of the restaurant, surrounded by children and taking Christmas wishes,” he laughed. “It was a blast.”

Cox said one little girl approaching him boldly while eating out one Dec. 27 to express her displeasure at receiving the wrong doll.

“She had her hands on her hips and said, ‘Santa, we need to talk,’” he said. “When I told her Santa can only go by what she tells me or writes down, she said, ‘I told my mom she was asking for the wrong doll.’ The whole restaurant was quiet. I asked her if that doll would be OK until next year and she said yes.”

Both said children often want to hug them or thank them while in public, and they’ve even had pictures made with kids – all out of costume. The instances are reminders of the joy that Santa brings to children and adults and the importance of the role they play, even if it is only for one month of the year.

“I keep asking myself why I keep doing it. Then, you get started and that first innocent child looks into your eyes and suddenly you remember the excitement that you felt as a child, and you pour your heart into it so each kid can have those special memories just like I do,” Watson said. “Knowing that they see so much more in you than is really there is truly a very humbling experience.”

Cox said he always tries to focus attention on Jesus’ birth as the reason for Christmas and the importance of that over the figure of Santa Claus. Handing out candy canes upside down – so they make a J for Jesus – is one aspect of their visits regularly.

“I try to point them to the fact that gifts are great and Christmas is fantastic but the real reason is to worship Jesus,” Cox said, noting that this year he also handed out cards with the Santa kneeling at the manger scene to drive home the point.

Watson shared a sentiment that he sees his role as a ministry to children.

“The thought occurred to me that playing Santa carries a responsibility that I was not aware of. The little things you do might well become some of life’s most precious memories with these kids and their families,” he said. “I try to pray each season that God will allow me to be what I need to be for each kid. This has become my ministry.”