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Three Santas share tales of time as St. Nick
Fred Cato - photo by Steffenie Burns

Butch Persinger decided to become Santa Claus for one simple reason.

“My beard turned white,” he said. “You start getting recognized as Santa and you try it and it’s a riot.”

He’s been putting on the coat, hat and boots to match his look for 15 Christmas seasons.

Tom Kieffer has been donning the red suit for four years. With its fur-trimmed cuffs and broad, black belt, the outfit was passed down from a neighbor.

“You do it for the joy of the kids,” Kieffer said. “You get to see so much goodness.”

Fred Cato’s origins as Mr. Claus date to the early 1970s, when he worked the promotions and photography side of business for a mall Santa.

“Santa just didn’t bother to show up one day, and of course the mall manager of the merchant’s group said, ‘Well, somebody has to do Santa,’” Cato said. “They said, ‘You’ll do, let’s go.’ So I put on the Santa suit … and the rest was history.”

Persinger, Kieffer and Cato are among the Forsyth County area men who play the beloved holiday icon during the Christmas season. The Forsyth County News recently visited with them to learn more about the details and demands of the job.


Continuing legacy of late neighbor


Tom and Gini Kieffer knew longtime friend and neighbor T Blue Sanderson and his wife, Beth, well. Before their friend passed, he told Kieffer he should take on the Santa suit.

“Christmas Day, he’d always come over and sit with our sons, Tommy and Jake,” said Kieffer, whose boys are now 19 and 20.

“T Blue would say, ‘Tom, when I retire the suit, you need to take it over.’ And I was like, ‘That’s probably not going to happen.’

“But then about four years ago, he passed just before Christmas. We went to the funeral and after watching all the videos of him and stuff, Gini and the kids were like, ‘Dad, you got to do it.’”

Since then, Kieffer has been wearing his friend’s suit and boots, which just so happened to fit him perfectly, at numerous events across north Georgia.

November and December mean plenty of long days for Kieffer, who still works his full-time job remodeling homes.

“The day starts at 4:30 in the morning,” he said. “Most of our work is down in Dunwoody, so that’s why I get up so early.”

Besides his day job, Kieffer said he’ll work about 50 events as Santa each holiday season.

“We’re doing 10 or 11 events every weekend,” he said. “Someone asked me recently what Santa wants for Christmas. I just said a day off would be wonderful.”

Among his Santa gigs is working with several photography studios and parties at churches, schools, nursing homes and private family gatherings.

This year, for the first time, he got to be featured in the Cumming Christmas Parade and Northside Hospital-Forsyth’s Celebration of Lights. As a nearly 35-year resident of Forsyth County, those events proved especially fun.

As for occupational hazards as Santa, Kieffer said there really aren’t too many.

“Everybody’s always like, ‘How many times have you been peed on,’” he joked. “Well, none actually.”

While no children were to blame, one of his knees did take a bit of a hit recently though.

“I didn’t fall or anything, but I stumbled and tore my knee up a little bit,” he said. “I was at the orthopedic doctor after that getting a shot in my knee and fitted for a knee brace.”

Despite the occasional challenges, Kieffer said he wouldn’t trade anything for the chance to play the jolly old elf.

“One little girl just recently leaned over and whispered in my ear that she didn’t need anything for Christmas, but her mom could really use a new pair of jeans and new shoes.

“It’s moments like that that bring tears to your eyes.”


Busy St. Nick has an agent


Butch Persinger gradually worked into his role as Santa

“In the first couple of years, I just did two or three [appearances], like in neighborhoods and stuff and then it kind of snowballed,” said Persinger, who worked as a water quality technician before he retired and became St. Nick.

Now, Santa’s got an agent who lines up his schedule.

Persinger, who lives in Braselton, has done as many as 40-something events a season, but has dialed it back this year to a couple dozen, including several visits to The Collection at Forsyth.

The reactions he gets from children range “from sheer terror to awe,” but it’s making kids happy that he enjoys the most.

The most popular requests this year have been Legos and American Girl dolls and accessories, he said. But of course, many still hope for a puppy or a pony.

“The ones that always tear you up are the ones that want something for the family,” Persinger said. “I had one a couple nights ago that wanted his mom to get better for Christmas.”

He’ll usually tell the children that he and the elves will “see what they can do” about the requests. Some kids must get their most sought-after present, because Persinger gets plenty of gratitude when running errands in January and February.

“I’ll be in a store or coming out of a store and all the sudden, there’s a kid hanging on my leg, looking up at me and saying thank you for such-and-such,” he said.

His most treasured memory as Santa came from a young girl, about 6 or 7, who tugged at his beard and hair while sitting on his lap.

She was pleased that his hair was real, but she told him he wasn’t.

“‘I said, Oh really? Why is that?’” Persinger recalled. “She said ‘The real Santa, he’s bald on top.’ And when I lifted up my hat and she saw a bald head, her eyes got about as big as saucers and she said ‘You are!’”

A moment like that, he said, comes only a few times in a Santa career.


Role is ‘not at all’ a job


Fred Cato, who got his start as an emergency fill-in Santa, didn’t reprise the role until decades later. He prefers mom-and-pop shops, churches, hospitals, nonprofits and private functions, where he can tell his story of Christmas.

“I believe in celebrating Christmas for the primary and sole reason there is Christmas and that’s the birth of Jesus Christ, my savior,” he said.

Cato’s first scheduled gig as Santa was a breakfast at Longstreet Baptist Church about 10 years ago. He had such a great time “being there with children, seeing them smile and making them happy telling them about the reason for Christmas ... I’ve been doing theirs every year since.”

For Cato, who spends more than seven hours getting his beard and hair bleached a snowy white, playing Santa is a year-round job.

“Everywhere I go, children and adults come up and talk to me,” he said. “People have asked my wife, ‘Does he not get tired of that?’ Because they just come up and start talking. And she says, ‘He never [does].’”

Cato said there may be 10 days a year when he won’t wear a red shirt. During winter, he sports a red coat. And he’s always on his best behavior. But it’s all worth it when he sits at a restaurant “and children are coming over to the table.”

That scene played out last week at a restaurant in Vickery Village, he said.

“Our food came, but there were children there, so I just turned my chair around and let the children climb into my lap,” he said.

A dog lover, Cato said he’s been Santa to pets, some of whom he joked have been better behaved than the kids.

“[Children have] pulled my beard, they pull my hair,” he said. “… They pull your glasses off. They do all those things and some … come up and they want to poke you in the tummy to see if Santa’s belly really does shake like a bowl of jelly.

“I’ve been wet on. I’ve been thrown up on. I’ve been hit. They’ve come screaming. It’s all happened, and you just know that it’s going to happen.

“But this is not a job to me. Not at all.”


Staff writers Crystal Ledford and Jennifer Sami contributed to this report.