Santa#039;s helpers serve annually as goodwill ambassadors

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 20, 2005

&#8220Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus!”

That excited chorus of children's voices along the route of the Hollywood Christmas Parade inspired the penning of the celebrated tune of the same name. It's just one holiday song celebrating the generous gent in the red and white suit who travels around the world each Christmas Eve, making Christmas wishes come true.

Of course, Santa isn't as young and spry as he used to be, and he relies on a legion of helpers to serve as his goodwill ambassadors to the children.

Two Greenville gentlemen happen to be two of Santa's jolliest assistants in Butler County.

A ship-shape Santa

On a typical day, Ricky Cargile is managing business at Terminex or supporting the projects of his civic club, the Greenville Lions.

Come the Christmas season, however, and Cargile is taking that familiar red velvet suit out of storage, making sure everything looks ship-shape.

&#8220It really bothers me to see a Santa looking shabby. I was in a store one day, and Santa's suit was worn out – and he was wearing tennis shoes. That's just not right, when you're representing someone special,” Cargile says.

&#8220If I can't look good playing Santa I don't want to do it.”

Cargile has been a Santa's helper for 22 years. In the earlier days, he says he played Santa at many places for many events.

&#8220I went to schools and nursing homes, parties…a lot of places. Later I had to cut back because things got too busy.”

Faces lighting up

This year, Cargile says he had a great time playing stand-in for Santa during the Greenville Christmas Parade.

&#8220Seeing the kids' faces is probably the best part (of the Santa experience). Even from up there on the fire engine, I can see their little faces lighting up with awe when they see Santa coming. That's a great feeling.”

Following this year's parade, Cargile got a chance to visit with children at Confederate Park and hear some of their fondest wishes.

Santa himself got a special treat that day: a visit from Miss Alabama USA, Haleigh Stidham.

&#8220Yes, that was nice,” Cargile chuckles.

Cargile, who also volunteers with the Joseph Ministries food bank, believes in the spirit of giving, all a part of the true meaning of Christmas.

&#8220After all, Christmas is about God sending us a gift, his son Jesus, so we could be saved,” he says.

Cargile thinks Santa can fit right in with the religious celebration of the season.

&#8220I was once part of an event at First United Methodist Church…I went up to the tree in the sanctuary in my Santa suit and knelt down to show honor to Jesus. A lot of people were touched by that.”

What traits should a good Santa's helper have?

&#8220I think being joyful is very important…being a caring person has a lot to do with it, too. And a sense of humor also helps a lot,” Cargile laughs.

A ministering Santa

Allen Stephenson, Butler County's circuit clerk and community volunteer, might be taking photos of a wedding. Or officiating it.

As a Baptist minister, Stephenson serves two church congregations in south Butler County: First Baptist Church of Georgiana and Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church.

He is also a very busy Santa's helper come each December.

&#8220I've been at most of the schools and at the Butler Activity and Training Center. I've been Santa at many of the civic clubs, in particular the Kiwanis Club every year for the past five or six years,” Stephenson says.

He has also visited some of the senior centers and nursing homes, and at the Georgiana Housing Authority &#8220where I have seen some of the most caring people in Butler County.”

What's the best part of playing Santa?

&#8220That's easy,” Stephenson says with a smile. &#8220It's the joy Santa brings to all ages. I see grownups turn into kids once again at the sight of Santa.”

Just recently, Stephenson was playing Santa at a local store. Taking a break, he stepped out on the sidewalk and waved at those passing by.

&#8220You might have thought the adults would be embarrassed to wave. Not so. They smiled and blew their horn just like a 4-year-old kid.”

‘All that is good'

Stephenson has no problem reconciling the role of Santa with his duties as a pastor.

&#8220Sometimes we put Santa down, thinking he distracts from the real meaning of Christmas, the birth of the Christ Child. I tell you, Santa represents all that is good in the world.”

In Stephenson's eyes, the figure of a benevolent and caring Santa says to adults and children alike &#8220there is still wonder and amazement left in what seems sometimes to be a cold and uncaring world.”

He adds, &#8220Santa speaks of generosity and unconditional love. And those are things the world needs more of.”

Of course, very young children can be overwhelmed by the jolly old elf (the tots two and under often haven't yet figured just what Santa is all about yet).

&#8220It's no fun when the little kids cry and are scared of Santa. But my greater joy is to win them over and have them leave no longer afraid,” Stephenson says.

This Santa's helper believes Santa can be a &#8220fear dispeller” for children much in the same way Jesus can be for all people.

&#8220Jesus can do any with our fears and replace them with hope and trust. He forgives us and assures us there is hope for all eternity. Isn't that wonderful?”

Stephenson says he has had many light-hearted moments playing the role, including riding a bike around the former &#8220Y” location during a children's Christmas party.

&#8220Once I at was at a music class in one of our schools. The kids all wanted to hug Santa and I almost lost my pants trying to escape,” he laughs.

The request that gave him the biggest laugh was that of a little boy &#8220who asked me if I could pick up his little brother on Christmas Eve and drop him off at someone else's house.”

And there are sad moments, too.

&#8220You have kids who have lost a parent or who are caught up in a cycle of poverty, who really don't ask for much for themselves. These kids amaze even Santa with their unselfish requests. There is nothing more pure than a child with a heart for his or her siblings,” Stephenson says.

Stephenson likes to encourage the children to not only be good (and leave Santa milk and cookies, of course) but to &#8220always say their prayers” each night.

&#8220I think adults would do well to remember that, too,” the minister says.

What qualities does Stephenson think a good Santa's helper needs?

&#8220Patience. And perhaps a little endurance. That thick red suit wasn't made for these South Alabama winters.”

And it's an especially busy Christmas for Santa this year. He can use plenty of help from other caring, compassionate individuals.

&#8220Santa is going to have to work extra hard to help all the kids whose parents were lost in the tsunami, those whose parents are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, and those who lost their homes and, in some cases, their family members in Hurricane Katrina,” Stephenson says.

Stephenson and Cargile want to send a Christmas message to Butler County on behalf of all the Santa's helpers in the world: &#8220We wish you peace, hope, joy and love. That's what Christmas is all about.”

Ho, ho, ho!