He may not have a white beard or red suit, but Gene Hansard could be the closest thing Forsyth County has to a real Santa Claus.
Since 1994, Hansard has been hand crafting Christmas ornaments at his home on Bennett Road, near the Dawson County line. A wreath that hangs on the Hansard’s front door features most of them.
And they don’t number just a few — there’s dozens and dozens.
“I started in May of 1994 and I make about 300 a year,” Hansard said. “Every year I made a few different ornaments and give them to my family and friends.”
He estimated that he’s made about 5,000 over the years. The ornaments don’t start off in a craft kit or other pre-made arrangement. Hansard crafts every tiny detail by hand.
“One of the things I enjoy the most is, you know, necessity is the mother of invention,” he said. “I’ve used toothpicks to make the axils to hold wheels and I use drills as small as needles to drill the holes.”
Hansard spoke as he sat the dining room table, which about the first of every December becomes his workshop for the finishing touches on the pieces, although he works on the ornaments year round. His wife, Diane, does most of the painting.
“She’s really good with the detailing,” Hansard said.
The first ornaments were tiny Christmas houses, but Hansard tired of that.
“We did 80 a year of those, but it got mundane and it was hard to come up with any creative ideas because, you know, a little house is a little house. You can paint it 40 different colors, but that’s about it,” he said.
Since then, Hansard has drawn inspiration from hundreds of different objects. They range from boats, geese and tool boxes to stoves, arbors and bulldozers, just to name a few.
Many of the miniatures harken to times past, such as old mills and Cumming’s famous steam engines. He’s also fond of many old-timey hunting implements, such as fishing creels and rabbit boxes.
When an object gets his attention, he spends many hours bringing it down to scale to make the ornament resemble real life as closely as possible.
His steam engine ornament, which will be among those he gives in 2013, started as many of them do — with a photo of the full-sized object.
“My son took a picture in the [Thomas-Mashburn Steam Engine Parade on July 4],” he explained. “Then I scaled it out and then scaled it down.
“I might cut three or four [models] until I get the proportions right and get them like I like them.”
Hansard does whatever it takes to get the ornaments just right.
“This year, I’ve made a little garden cart and a mill house and that has 38 pieces of wood to it. The little wagon has about 60 pieces.”
He makes three or four unique ornaments for each year. They are given as a set to various family members and friends.
Besides those, Hansard makes one standard ornament every year, a tiny baby Jesus in the manger.
“I make about 200 of those a year,” he said, noting they are presented mostly to people he doesn’t know.
This year, he shipped 100 of them to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., for wounded soldiers.
In years past, they’ve gone to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, area churches and special education classes.
Hansard’s similarity to the man in the red suit continues in his love of sharing the ornaments with children.
“The biggest kick I get out of them is at Christmas I’ll take two or three dozen of those with me and just give them out to strangers, especially little kids,” he said. “Kids love them and I get a kick out of that.”
Hansard never takes a penny for the ornaments, something he said many folks can’t understand.
“They always ask why don’t I charge for them, but that’s easy,” he said. “If I sold one, it would become a job and I don’t want another job.”
Those who are lucky enough to be on the Gene Hansard ornament list each year — and, yes, there is an actual list, a book really, with a page for every year noting who received which ornaments — say they treasure them.
“They really are good. They’re well thought out,” said Jane Sargent, who along with husband Tom, has been on the list for about 15 years. “They are keepsakes and my children will always treasure them.”
Rick Lee, another annual recipient, has two Christmas trees — one for his family’s keepsakes and a second to showcase Hansard’s ornaments.
“I think we enjoy putting up the Gene Hansard tree as much as the regular tree,” he said. “The ornaments are really something special.”
And so is Hansard’s spirit.
“I enjoy making them and just making people happy with them,” he said. “But if there’s a message I could get out, it’s the fact that I enjoy making kids happy.”
There’s also a special grandchild that Hansard honors through the ornaments.
“Nick, he was born blind and has never been able to talk. He’s 24, but he has the mind of about a 2-year-old child,” said Hansard through a few tears. “And this is one way for me to give back for what we’ve been given in him.”
Unlike his counterpart at the North Pole, Hansard may not be immortal. But he does plan to keep making the ornaments as long as he can.
“I just enjoy making them. But I get more pleasure out of giving them away than I do making them,” he said. “I just do it to make people feel good.”