Longtime Santa Claus is hanging up his beard
by Lisa Tome
When North East hosts its community tree lighting on November 29, for the first time in 30 years, Lilburn "Libby" Lewis will be there merely as a spectator.
For the last three decades, Lewis, 75, has been the star of the show - Santa Claus.
It's puzzling that someone who doesn't like facial hair would take a job that requires a full beard. "I can't go two days without shaving, it starts itching," laughed Lewis.
He got his start as Santa at First Baptist Church of North East. He was asked to work at the town tree lighting in 1986 and took the church choir along to the event. The town tree lighting was held in several locations - the town entrance on Main Street and Jackson School House, before it moved to the current town park pavilion location.
Lewis is a father of two and grandfather of two. He and his wife, Iva, have been married for 57 years.
"It's good living with Santa. He's good to me," Iva Lewis said.
He owned and operated Lewis market from 1969 until he retired in 1991. "He was good to people. Even when he was not being Santa," she said.
"I've often wondered how many homes my picture is in. I've had my picture taken with so many children and pets," he said.
He said the best part of being Santa is the smiles. He holds handicapped children dear to his heart.
He also said that children will ask for anything - a Corvette, a pony, or guns. He said what hasn't changed much is that little girls still want Barbie dolls and little boys still want bikes. Older children ask for more expensive gifts.
"Santa will do his best to give you everything you want. I never promised them. I make it a really good possibility. If you watch the mom, she will guide you," he said regarding granting wishes.
His Santa role playing hasn't been confined to one night a year. He also has been Santa at the town's Santa House. He has a lot of memories of the requests he has received.
"The saddest thing is when little fellas say 'bring my daddy home or bring my mommy home' when people get divorced or they're in the service," he said.
He has a fond memory of one instance when he was working. A mother asked him to help her convince a child that she needed to take medicine. Santa's magic worked. He saw the mother a short while later, and she was surprised that a "stranger" knew the child had been so ill.
He owns his own suit and has had several over the years. He doesn't loan it out due to the expense of maintaining it. That's "Mrs. Claus'" job. She maintains the suit, wig, and beard.
It takes 15-20 minutes to get decked out in the outfit. He has never had Santa boots in all the years. Instead, he wears a pair that he got while serving in the National Guard in the mid 1950s.
There are some high profile advantages to being Santa. He has arrived aboard fire trucks and in police cars, and more recently, by horse and carriage.
Once, he was offered to arrive by helicopter, but declined the invitation.
He slips into character quickly and his voice changes when he's in Santa mode. "With the Ho Ho Ho, you've got to mean it," he said.
"I have loved every minute of it. But there comes a time when the younger people need to start doing things," he said.
Despite open heart surgery and six cancer surgeries he never missed a tree lighting. He'll be there this year, on the sidelines. "It's the best way to get into the holiday spirit," he said.
Hanging up his beard will also give him more time for his other pursuits. In addition to being a trustee at First Baptist Church of North East, he also performs with the gospel singing group Never Too Late.
He also runs his own Santa's workshop of sorts. He rehabs older bicycles so they can be ridden. He sells them for a nominal fee or gives them away.
"Being Santa is one of the best feelings anyone can get. Everybody should try to be a good, Christian Santa. It comes from the heart," he said.
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