When children pull Carl Rushing’s lush white beard, their eyes widen in surprise when they realize it’s not fake. The magic of childhood imagination ignites and they believe — Santa is real.
Rushing is well known around the Brooklet area as “the real Santa Claus,” even when he is not wearing a red suit. Kids greet him in the local convenience store as “Santa,” and teachers call on the friendly, tattooed character year round to handle unruly students. Dressed in everyday clothes, Brooklet’s Santa talks to the children and admonishes them for bad behavior — and “they listen,” he said.
Now, Rushing will spend a few of his December evenings listening to them. On Saturday, he invites local kids to tell him what’s on their wish lists this year, while their parents snap free photos to preserve the memories.
“Not everyone can afford to spend extra money on photos this time of year,” he said.
The event will be held at his home, located at 209 Elm St. in Brooklet, on Saturday from 6–8 p.m. and again on Friday, Dec. 9, from 6–8 p.m.
He and “Mrs. Claus” — wife Cathy Rushing — will hand out goody bags to the children as well.
The event is free of charge, but people must bring their own cameras to take photos.
Rushing, who said he “grayed prematurely,” has been playing Santa since 1988, when he and Cathy lived in Springfield, Georgia. He said he does these events to help spread the spirit of Christmas.
“I went to the churches, banks, schools, especially the special education classes,” he said. “I just love young’uns.”
And they love him.
“I can’t go to a restaurant without kids coming up to me to tell me what they want for Christmas,” he said.
Rushing is outgoing and welcomes the attention.
“Shy isn’t in my vocabulary,” he said.
Whenever anyone makes a request for Santa’s appearance, Rushing tries to make it happen. He is the star at school “pictures with Santa” fundraisers, where “people are lined up out the door,” he said.
But because some families may be unable to afford to buy pictures with Santa, he and his wife welcome everyone for the free photo sessions at his home each year.
Rushing gets just a wee bit tickled when teachers call on him to help keep students in line.
“I was the bad guy most of the year,” he said with a laugh, recalling lessons he has tried to teach the children about behaving. “Then, they would tighten up.”
In today’s world, in which the magic and mystique of Santa Claus has faded for many, Rushing said he has never encountered a child who didn’t believe in Santa. There have been a few, however, who didn’t want to talk to him or sit in his lap.
“I had one roll my head up in a car window,” he said, laughing.
Kids sometimes cry and are afraid, but Rushing works around that. He will step away, allow the child to recover and then sneak up for a photo while they remain unaware the jolly old elf is behind them.
One thing he doesn’t do is make promises.
“I won’t tell them they will get something I know they might not be able to get,” he said.
He has had boys ask for real tractors and cars. And something a bit odd to him is that little girls are asking for “real babies — not dolls, but real babies,” he said.
“I tell them I don’t think Santa is equipped for that.”
When lines are long and he can only spend a minute or two with each child, Rushing usually sticks to the usual “What do you want for Christmas?” line. But if the crowd is smaller and the opportunity arises, he is more than happy to share the true Christian meaning of Christmas — celebrating the birth of Christ.
“They will sometimes ask me why I don’t know their names,” he said. “I tell them I’m not Jesus and don’t know everybody’s names. I tell them I know where they live but can’t keep everybody’s names straight.
Rushing has advertised his upcoming photo sessions on social media and expects visitors from as far away as other counties.
“I already have people coming from Effingham,” he said.
He will be found outside his home in Brooklet — where he spends the off-season away from the North Pole — sitting in a recliner and waiting for children to arrive with their wish lists. If you listen carefully, you may even hear a good old Southern “Ho, ho, ho! Merry Christmas!” before the night is over.
Herald reporter Holli Deal Saxon still believes in Santa. She may be reached at (912) 489-9414.