Summer Santas: Local Clauses network in the offseason

Staff Photo: Erin Evans. Santas, from left, Tom Johnson and Tom Harrison, along with several other local Santas, share lunch together recently at a restaurant in Covington.

Staff Photo: Erin Evans. Santas, from left, Tom Johnson and Tom Harrison, along with several other local Santas, share lunch together recently at a restaurant in Covington.

The reindeer are grazing in local gardens and the elves are at the beach, but Santa's work is never done. Summer finds him spreading cheer on a cruise. He's at the Georgia Aquarium with his grandchildren. He's at yet another buffet. And he's sitting in a hair salon breathing through a straw so he doesn't inhale the fumes while he's getting a mid-summer hair bleaching.

Indeed, it would seem Santa Claus is all over the place in Covington and Conyers. While they don't really call it a convention when several Santas are gathered together, such as they did on a recent Thursday at a restaurant in Covington, it makes one sit up and take notice -- and behave.

It is believed that the Covington-Conyers area is home to more bearded Santa Clauses per capita than anywhere else in the country. There is no known scientific research study on this, but local Santas have been told that such a claim is true.

Santa Tom Johnson of Covington said there are probably close to 30 Santas who live in this one area. "Must be something in the water, I reckon," he said. All the Santas try to get together once a month during the "offseason" and share a meal at a local buffet.

Santa Tom Harrison of Conyers said they have a fun time together and enjoy occasional get-togethers with the Peachtree Santas in Atlanta, another large group. But yet, there is still a shortage of Santas, he said.

Perhaps it is because when you are Santa, there is never a day you are not, the local Santas say. While the job is unquestionably fun and rewarding, it can also be demanding and there is a lot of responsibility in living up to the namesake.

For instance, when Santa Harrison goes to his local pizza joint, they know to bring him his chosen beverage -- it's not milk -- in a Styrofoam cup because Santa should never be seen drinking anything that rhymes with deer. Johnson said it encompasses an entire "lifestyle" for those who choose to be a Santa.

"If you're truly in the business for what it is, then you have to be mindful of how you act in public," he said. "Would you want your kids to see Santa out cussing and drinking and partying?"

Of course not; Santa is Santa, whether he's in his big red suit at the mall or wearing a red T-shirt and jean shorts at the local hardware store.

"(A woman walked up and asked me), 'Do you play Santa?'" Johnson said. "I said, 'No, ma'am, I am Santa. I don't play Santa.'"

Johnson, who grew up in Conyers and graduated from Rockdale County High School in 1982, said he is a "baby Santa." He became Santa after being "lazy in shaving" and growing his beard out for a week when everyone began telling him he should be Santa Claus.

He was 39 years old and got his start doing family parties and private groups. His popularity grew and he became a favorite Santa for corporate events and worked as the Santa at Southlake Mall for a couple of years.

Three years ago he became the Santa at the Mall of Georgia in Buford and cannot even estimate how many children he has seen.

"On my busiest day, there were easily 1,000 or more," Johnson said. "You hear all the sad stories about, 'I want my Daddy back from overseas.' Parents getting divorced. Somebody's sick. You hear all of those. I had a kid last year ask for a pet monkey, not a toy one. He wanted a real monkey, I was informed right quick.

"You just never know what will come out of their mouths, but it's all good. I have the time of my life doing this. It's like going to a party every day."

He also remembers a young man two Christmases ago who rushed up to him at the mall and said he wanted Santa's help in proposing to his fiancee. The couple waited in line to see Santa, and after laughing and chatting, the young woman got up to leave Santa's lap when Johnson said, "Wait, I believe I've got something for you right here."

Johnson gave her the ring and the boyfriend proposed. Last Christmas they came back to see Johnson and brought their newborn baby.

When Johnson and his wife, Becky, took a cruise last year, he was bombarded with senior citizens wanting their picture with him to send home to their grandkids.

Becky Johnson, who works in Children's Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston cardiac unit, has the Mrs. Claus dress but refuses to dye her hair white. She often joins her husband as he visits the sick children at Egleston and Children's at Scottish Rite each year.

With a birthday on Dec. 25, Harrison should have seen it coming. After all, he has been all about doing good, having served as chairman of the United Way capital campaign and other boards, including president of the Rotary Club.

But Harrison was thrust into the Santa suit two Christmases ago when his daughter-in-law Shannon Harrison called him in a panic because she needed a Santa to come visit Ebenezer UMC's preschool.

Harrison, a veteran with the New Depot Players, a local theater group, said he thought he could pull it off. He donned the suit and the beard and thought it would be a one-time thing until a little girl came running up to him, grabbed him and said she loved him.

He decided at that moment to stop shaving and cutting his hair, Harrison said, laughing.

From there, Harrison's Santa sleigh took off with a full slate of appearances and fame in the Conyers-Rockdale area. He rode in the Conyers Christmas parade and helped light the town's Christmas tree.

One day, Harrison was picking up his first-grader grandson from the school bus stop when all the kids started yelling at him out of the windows telling him what they wanted for Christmas.

"Get in the car, Paw Paw," his embarrassed little grandson said.

Harrison said being Santa is loads of fun, but it does require maintenance. He has to visit the hair salon for bleachings and touchups, and he jokes that he and the other Santas ask each other, "Who does your hair?"

"I'm about 80 percent natural," Santa Johnson said of his appearance. "I do a little bleaching on my mustache. My oldest son is starting to get a white patch of hair, so maybe ..."