Small-town Santa

The legend of St. Nicholas tells of a “protector of children” who traveled the countryside and brought cheer to those who needed it most.
Nearly 1,800 years later, the cozy atmosphere of small towns offers the perfect setting in which to experience the tradition of Santa Claus.
Friday, December 17, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 9:57 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Ron Wilcox of Ashland has been his town’s sole Santa for eight years.

“My son came into my life 10 years ago, and I started dressing as Santa for his day care,” Wilcox said.

Wilcox, 50, is employed at Brown Printing in Jefferson City and has attended various day-care centers, kindergarten classes and, for the past three years, the public library in Ashland dressed in his red suit.

This small-town Santa has two simple rules for playing the part.

“Rule number one — you have to like kids,” Wilcox said. “Rule number two — you have to have a suit.”

Wilcox bought his suit for $50 eight years ago.

“I never expected to get this much use out of it,” he said.

The outfit has withstood the test of time, and time has only given Wilcox more opportunities to perfect his Santa act. Wilcox never misses an opportunity to show off his Santa abilities.

“When I know the kids and their families and I know darn well they fight with their siblings, I’ll ask them if they have been good to their brothers or sisters,” Wilcox said. “They’re surprised when I pull stuff like that on them.”

Wilcox is not the only one throwing in occasional surprises. Sometimes the children are a step ahead of St. Nick.

Brandon Wood climbed onto Wilcox’s lap Saturday at the Boone County Public Library in Ashland.

“I want Donald the Train,” Brandon, 4, said. “It’s at Hy-Vee.”

Wilcox chuckled.

“Oh, OK, it was getting too crowded at Toys ‘R’ Us anyway,” Wilcox said behind his gaping smile.

Wilcox said he has noticed a slight change in children’s wish lists the past eight years.

“Last year, a little girl turned around when she was leaving and asked me if I could keep her Uncle Nick, who was over in Iraq, safe,” Wilcox said. “I’m retired from the military, so that meant something to me.”

Hallsville is another town whose residents bring the legend of Santa Claus to life.

Hallsville has not one, but four Santas who make the house–to-house rounds.

“As far as I know it, we’re the only town to do this,” said Russell Cook, a Hallsville Masonic Lodge member. “It’s a tradition here.”

As the evening unfolds on Dec. 23, four members of the Lodge will dress up in the Santa suits stored at City Hall.

With the town divided into four parts, the Santas disperse to homes with porch lights on to bring bags of candy to the children who live there.

Each year, city employees fill 300 to 400 bags of candy for the visits. Cook said the Santas start their journeys at 5:30 p.m. and usually take a couple of hours to get to all of the homes.

The tradition was started more than 40 years ago by the Hallsville Jaycees. The Lions Club took over the event when the Jaycees dissolved. Today, the Hallsville Masonic Lodge sponsors the annual Santa visits.

Cook said that someone always stays at the City Hall in case a home is missed.

“We try not to miss anyone,” Cook said. “The people look forward to Santa coming.”

Although small-town Santas take a community approach, sometimes the rewards are reaped at the individual level.

“I have a picture of when my son was 2, and he is sitting on my lap,” Wilcox said. “The best part is that he doesn’t know it’s me. That was special.”

What never ceases to amaze a small-town Santa, however, are the bright-eyed looks on children’s faces when he calls out their names.

“They’re surprised I know their names,” Wilcox said. “Of course I know their names,” he said, chuckling. “I’m Santa Claus.”

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