By Jean Redstone
He’s the hit of every Christmas parade and the star of every holiday party. When he arrives, with sleigh or with elfin helpers, people flock in delight to greet the white-bearded fellow in the deep-red, plush suit, belted and booted in lustrous black.
‘Tis the season and Santa’s coming to town. As a matter of fact, he’s been here since Thanksgiving – that was him at the Woolwich Fire Station after the Swedesboro parade, welcoming youngsters with a smile and a nod. It was him at the very popular Santa Night at Allstate Insurance in Pennsville on Dec. 3.
In recent years he’s been to Lunch with Santa at Rode’s Restaurant in Swedesboro, and Breakfast with Santa at Botto’s, to Salem Oaks Winery in Pedricktown, the Senior Luncheon at the Methodist Church in Mullica Hill, and to parties for kids at the request of Gloucester County Children’s Services.
Shortly he’ll be strolling Mullica Hill during this year’s Dec. 10 Holiday House Tour, stopping every so often to read aloud interesting little stories.
Of course, by nature Santa is particularly peripatetic, traveling the globe from his North Pole workshop, flying south and hither and yon at least once a year.
But how does he come to be in our area so frequently?
It happens – you might want to keep this a secret from the children, who’ll be overly excited to learn – SANTA LIVES HERE. Yes. When not at the North Pole or visiting other places, Santa lives in Mullica Hill.
In fact, he uses a different name when not wearing his red suit. His neighbors know him as Louis Morford, Lou, an elementary school teacher in the Gloucester Township District for 35 years, until his retirement eight years ago. When he became Santa.
Morford took time from his Santa duties to fill in some details of his ‘Lou’ and his ‘Santa’ lives. A graduate of Glassboro State College with a degree in elementary education, Morford earned a Master’s from Rowan University in Educational Administration. But he did not go into administration.
“I preferred to teach. I liked working with the younger children. As a male, I was a role model for many of them.” He taught life skills to grades K-5. “Like, when you were taught to stop, drop and roll in a fire, that’s a life skill.
“I loved having the freedom of being a little bit different, being male, having a beard and getting a little creative. I have been known to stand on top of a desk and announce with a loud voice, ‘Now Hear This! All Sentences Begin with a Capital and End with Some Sort of Punctuation,’” Morford announced in a loud voice.
“I still see students who come back sometimes and say, “Remember when you…?’ The kids were why I loved teaching.”
Morford sported a beard as a teacher. He let it grow out a bit in winter and realized one day, “It’s odd, but as I got older, it got whiter.” Bearded Morford was often mistaken for the Santa who visited the younger children’s classrooms, he said. That was all it took for the mischief side of the teacher to appear.
“When I knew Santa was coming, I would leave the room. The kids thought Santa was me, but then I would come back in the room. That was fun, to see them realize I wasn’t Santa.”
But of course, Morford actually was Santa in many ways, not the least of which is his obvious resemblance to the mythic man of lore. It’s been a fact of Morford’s existence for years, his wife, Nancy, said.
“I’m extremely proud of him, but sometimes I have to be careful he doesn’t embody Santa when he goes places. Wherever we go, even DisneyWorld, it ends up where kids are following him around. This is so who he is.”
Lou Morford added a memory from not long ago when he was shopping at a department store. “I was wearing a red T-shirt. A mom approached me and said, ‘My son thinks he recognizes you. Are you…?’ I said, ‘Yes. I am.’ Then I went down on one knee and spoke to her son. I said I was Santa and scoping out toys. He was thrilled.”
That desire to please a youngster is at the heart of Morford’s transformation to Santa. He believes in the spirit of the myth.
It is a point of honor with him that “If you put on the (Santa) suit, you represent the spirit (of Santa.)” His goal, he said, “is to be a good, loving, kind, spirit of Santa Claus.”
But looking like Santa, pleasing Santa fans, and honoring Santa spirit is only the most recent part of Morford’s Santa persona. It actually began when he was a child and encountered the Santa magic.
“I was nine or 10, past believing in Santa, but my younger sister was into him heart and soul,” Morford recounted. “Santa came to my house that year. He knew things about our family no one usually knows. He came in the door and called my dog by name and asked if the dog was still getting his heart medication. He knew my parents by name and the neighbors, too. He visited the neighbors and knew things about them.
“None of us knew who he was. I asked my parents, the neighbors, and everyone around and they all swore they had nothing to do with it. I have asked them even as an adult and they still swore they don’t know.
“I used to tell that story to children in my classroom who said they didn’t believe in Santa. I’d say, ‘It’s your right not to believe’ then tell the story and end with, ‘So, as for me, I believe.’”
Naturally, then, being Santa was an easy choice for a retirement job. “It’s only about six to eight weeks a year but there’s some money in it,” he said. He added that he also brings Santa to events where he won’t be paid but the visit is appreciated.
But first Morford had to be certified. If you want to be a santa you’d do well to join the union, he mentioned. As a man with a beard, Morford joined the International Brotherhood of Real-Bearded Santas. It’s a bona fide thing.
As a member, he can purchase what apparently is lap insurance, in case someone falls off. That may be a Santa inside joke, but the insurance is real and so is the background check the IBRBS performs on applicants. So a certificate of membership assures an employer that Santa has credentials.
Santa Lou has interacted with people from four days old to mid-90s. The infants are placed in his lap for parents to get a picture. “They’re no trouble,” Santa said. “They sleep and my favorite pose is to pretend I’m sleeping with them.”
As for the seniors, Santa remembered being at a restaurant occasion and two “90-something ladies said they had never sat on Santa’s lap, so I invited them. They were delighted, but afraid they were hurting my lap,” he chuckled.
Santa has other memories. Some sad. “It always chokes me up to have a child tell me a relative or a pet died. I have to tell them I can’t bring them back, but their pain will go away a little bit every day.”
Some memories are of the annoying. “Do not hand Santa a soiled baby,” he admonished, after recalling several such events. “Santa has a special red cloth for that.” Also, “Santa will never promise a child a pet for Christmas,” he warned parents. “Santa will advise that a pet can be found at adoption centers after Christmas.”
But the real no-no, he said with finality, is, “do not traumatize a child with Santa. Do not force a child to sit on Santa’s lap. I will stand up next to a child if you need a picture, but if a child is not willing, don’t make him do it. Santa will never knowingly demean or frighten a child.”
Most memories, however, are wonderful, with “lots of awww moments. That’s why I do it.” And some are very special. Santa recalled one right away.
“There was a child waiting in line, all dressed up in her best, excited to be there. She was five or six and had a little wood train she’d made at Lowe’s and it said ‘To Santa’.
“Children have given me lists and catalog pages of toys, but none had given me a gift. Her name was Layla and she made me a gift. Every year I put that train under my tree. It’s very special to me.”
Santa, asked what, besides happy ‘awww’ moments, would he like for Christmas, answered true to the spirit of his suit. “For all people of the world to get along.”
Oh, and one more thing. Santa offered a caveat, obviously feeling merry. “People who don’t believe in Santa get underwear and socks for Christmas,” he said. There may have been a “ho ho ho” lingering softly about as he said it.