Don’t tell the kids, but Asheville’s most beloved Santa doesn’t live at the North Pole. Dennis Reed and his wife Deborah — aka Mr. and Mrs. Claus — reside in Haywood County, where they both grew up.
Dennis worked for 35 years at the Blue Ridge Paper plant and got his start as Santa in 2004 after Haywood County suffered a devastating flood. The community decided a visit from Santa could help raise spirits. “Well, guess who had the big belly and beard?” Reed says with a laugh. He bought a cheap Santa suit from Walmart for the role and he says “after that, being Santa just grew and grew.” So did the wardrobe: The Reeds have an entire room in their home devoted to Mr. and Mrs. Claus suits, dresses, accessories and accoutrements, including a set of century-old genuine Clydesdale bells. They’re also members of the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas.
During the countdown to Christmas, the Reeds’ calendar fills up with appearances, parades and, prior to COVID-19, visits to schools and nursing homes. After a pause on the Asheville Holiday Parade in 2020 due to the pandemic, it returned on Nov. 20. The occasion was particularly meaningful for Reed, who donned the Santa suit worn at the very first Asheville Holiday Parade and many years after. “Deborah and I met a fellow who had found it in a city property building he was cleaning out more than 30 years ago and couldn’t bring himself to throw the Santa suit in the dumpster,” Dennis recalls. “He wanted me to have it. It seemed like the 75th parade was the right time to wear it.”
Xpress spoke with Dennis about the tricks of the trade, the best way for parents to photograph crying kids on Santa’s lap and how to get off the naughty list (yes, it’s possible!).
What are your favorite memories of Christmas?
It was a really big deal to get to go to Asheville at Christmas, go to the parade and to Sears. We just had our little stores in Canton. When I was a boy, you’d get to go to the big Sears store, you’d see Santa, all the appliances, all the toys, all the lights. It was like going to a magic place.
Did you sit on Santa’s knee?
Oh yes! One year I wanted a bicycle so bad. Santa brought me one and a Gene Autry vest, two little cap busters, a pair of boots and a cowboy hat. I rode my bicycle around like it was a horse. I was the bicycle cowboy!
In 2000, you and your wife attended Santa school at Gatlinburg’s biannual Santa convention. What did you learn at Santa school?
How to deal with children is the biggest thing. You don’t want to come up to children with a big “HO, HO, HO!” That’s terrifying to a child. You come up gentle and let them see your happiness and joy and pass that joy to them. You learn what makes children happy and what they respond to. You learn the business side and fun side, the good and bad. Always keep your hands visible, for example. Experienced Santas share advice.
How do you manage and comfort the kids who are frightened, crying or having a tantrum?
A lot of parents want the photo of their kids crying. I will cry with them. I’ll hold him, let them scream and I do a silent scream. The photo looks like both of us are terrified of each other.
I talk to them and be calm, but if they’re real upset, I may say “Okay, I need to take a little break” and walk away. My wife will tell the parents to sit their child in the chair and I’ll come up behind them and bend down over the chair. I have my finger across my mouth going “Shhhhh!” [The kids] don’t know I’m there and it makes a great picture.
What do you do about adults who want to sit on Santa’s knee?
I let them. We went to a nursing home in Waynesville a few years back and this little lady was 102 years old. She said ‘I’m gonna sit on Santa’s knee’ and they rolled her up in her wheelchair. They helped her onto my knee. She told me she could remember the very first time Santa came to the log cabin she lived in up in the mountains. Santa left her a orange and red ribbon for her hair. Isn’t that amazing? A 102-year-old telling you the memory of her first Christmas almost 100 years before.
What is the best cookie to leave for Santa on Christmas Eve?
Chocolate chip, of course! It’s Santa’s favorite all year.
What is your favorite Christmas carol?
“Jingle Bells” is our trademark song. I have brass bells hanging off each side of my belt, so I jingle while I walk. The kids hear the bells coming and get so excited. We have them sing “Jingle Bells” really loud so Rudolph can hear it at the North Pole.
Have you seen Christmas miracles?
We’ve had miracles happen every year! Being Mr. and Mrs. Claus can be a little overwhelming. It’s a big responsibility. Kids come up to you believing you might have some help or hope for them. They say ‘Santa, can you help us?’ It never, ever fails: If a need comes, the good Lord answers.
What is the message of Christmas you want to share?
Our motto is ‘Love one another.’ Just think what a wonderful world we’d have if you looked after me and I looked after you. If we passed that around and shared the love, it would spread worldwide. We have to get back to love and caring for one another. Love is the only thing that can bring people together.
Do you have a naughty list?
Well, Mrs. Claus and I like to tell people there is always time to get off the naughty list. It’s never too late to do good and be good.