WHITEFISH – At the age of 50, Clifford Lee became Santa Claus.
Of course, with his annual white winter beard and jolly temperament, his grandkids had always assumed he was Santa. And his brother had long encouraged him to officially take on the role.
Lee, who lives in Whitefish, was reluctant. Growing a beard to keep his face warm in the winter was one thing. Dressing up in a bright red Santa suit and entertaining large groups of hyper kids was quite another.
But last year, after his friends – the owners of The Shak barbecue restaurant – invited him to appear as Santa at a party, Lee gave in and accepted his destiny. Now it’s hard to get him out of his brand new Santa suit. He loves it.
“It’s just an absolute joy to see the kids’ excitement,” Lee said. “It’s like they’re seeing someone who’s a celebrity or a hero for the first time. And you get to see that joy on their faces.”
Lee, 51, is a former journeyman cabinetmaker who now works in computer-aided design and drafting at a welding company. He is a hunter, outdoorsman and devout Christian who’s as comfortable joking with 5-year-olds as he is with 55-year-olds.
Families and businesses hire him to play Santa. If they can afford the $30 per half-hour, great. If not, Lee is still more than happy to do it. The only reason he charges at all is to recoup the investment on his new breathable polyester suit.
“This year I’m paying for the suit; next year I hope to pay for the sleigh,” Lee said, gesturing toward a red 2003 Ford F-150 in his driveway.
The Ford was purchased out of necessity, but it’s also served well as Santa’s “sleigh.” When people ask about his reindeer, Lee points to the pickup.
“They’re under the hood,” he says. “I’ve got 300 of them under there.”
So how does one become Santa Claus? To start, it helps that Lee truly does resemble most depictions of the great gift giver. Each September, around the time of his marriage anniversary, Lee begins growing his beard out. This year, in preparation for his first full winter of Santa appearances, he let the beard begin in August. He has also grown his hair out.
The Santa responsibility, Lee has discovered, requires a sharp learning curve. There are industry secrets to learn, such as the dos and don’ts of dealing with children when their entire Christmas dreams rest on your words. Lee said you never make promises that you – or more accurately the parents – can’t keep.
“You say, ‘That’s a wonderful gift idea,’” Lee said. “Be encouraging, upbeat. But don’t say, ‘Yeah, we’ve got that covered.’”
Lee’s wife, Laura, said her father is a long-time Santa Claus, though as a retired military veteran he is clean-cut with closely cropped hair and requires a fake beard and wig to assume the role. Lee just needs to throw on his outfit and he’s good to go.
Laura’s father dispensed important advice to Lee, including tips on the dos and don’ts. He also made suggestions on suits. After wearing a felt suit to his one Santa appearance last winter, Lee knew this season’s full schedule would necessitate something more comfortable.
Lee found the polyester suit, which he describes as “velveteen,” with lining and a zipper. He was told to avoid pullovers and seek out zippered suits. While the suit is nice for cold weather, Lee was feeling the heat last week as he sat next a fireplace in his Whitefish log cabin.
“It was nice at the art walk, but right now I’m very hot,” he said.
The Lees’ dog, Fritz, a large and aging Weimaraner, seemed far more comfortable next to the fire.
“The grandkids have decided that (Fritz) is Rudolph with his nose burned out,” Laura said.
Lee, using the name Whitefish Santa, roamed the streets during an art walk earlier this month, drawing favorable responses from kids and adults alike. This week, he has multiple bookings and has been asked by Whitefish Mountain Resort to appear at the torchlight parade, if he can iron out scheduling conflicts.
His first full season as a Santa is working out better than Lee could have expected. Demand is high and he’s learning on the fly. He plans to do it every year.
“It’s a way to serve the community,” he said. “I just love people and I’ve always loved kids.”
Lee can be found online at www.wfsanta.com or reached by phone at (406) 862-1259.
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