For Heller, being Santa Arthur is a yearlong endeavor. After initially portraying Santa for his photographer friend in 2006, he decided to maintain his beard and enroll in Santa school with his wife, Nancy.
“I live Santa all year long,” Heller said. “I leave the beard and I live the mentality. [I] always try to project the positive attitude and I don’t do things that would put a bad flavor on Santa. ... [In the days leading up to Christmas] the kids’ [comments] will hit you right in the heart. But the parents [impact you] too.
“I focus on the kids, and when you focus on the kids you’re involving the parents and you can tell how they feel. So everything you do out of love is passed on to the parents of the children. So that’s [presented] some rewarding times too. You can see how much the parents enjoy their children enjoying Santa Claus.”
While wish lists often are filled with the popular toys of the day, some of the youth’s requests to Heller are more touching, such as a child’s plea to reconcile his parents’ marriage. As Heller tries to personalize each visit, he said children’s demeanors are as varied as their gift desires.
“You’d be surprised how many children are so brave. They’re going to go see Santa and they lose their courage and they’ll start crying,” he said. “So when a kid is fixing to come see me I can tell pretty far away how they’re going to be. What I don’t try to do is rush them, move toward them. I always keep my voice tuned into their level. You can expect, I’d say, about 10 percent of the kids are going to crack up and be scared, but they want to hug you and be loved on.
“... How you conduct yourself as Santa Claus is very important in how kids remember what Santa Claus is about and that’s why [bearded Santa Claus organizations] exist. Young kids between the age of 3 and 4, maybe 5, they’ll reach up and pull your beard. That’s the first thing they’ll do. ... They’re testing it and they say, ‘Well, you are Santa Claus aren’t you?’ and I say, ‘Yep.’”
Echoing her husband’s comments, Nancy Heller delights in sharing the joy of the holidays at each appearance.
“It’s the kids, the children,” she said, referring to what she enjoys most about their public engagements. “It’s just fun interacting with them and just seeing how their faces react to Santa.
“Some of them just light up and then some of them do a 180 and become terrified, but most of them are real happy to see Santa. It’s just real neat to see them enjoy that tradition of Christmas being carried forward that we all enjoyed as children.”
When recalling their most memorable interactions, she highlighted humorous and heartwarming encounters.
“There was one time when this little girl — I don’t even know if she was 3 years old but she had this fabulous vocabulary,” Nancy Heller said. “She sat on Santa’s lap and just had this whole conversation with him and then she left. [When] we were getting ready to leave that particular location, she comes running up to him at full bore, grabs him around the knee and says, ‘I love you, Santa Claus.’ All these adults were standing around and everybody goes, ‘Awww.’ That was just one of those melt your heart moments.
“Then sometimes Santa always asks the children if their parents have been good, so [they know] everybody needs to be good. One time one little boy goes, ‘No, she’s been very bad, she smoked three cigarettes.’ And the mother kind of [clamped] her hand over his mouth. So you just never know what’s going to occur, but it’s a lot of fun.”
Along with making impromptu visits as Santa Arthur at local businesses, Heller is participating in about 25 events this season in Bartow, Fulton, Paulding, Cherokee, Gwinnett and Gilmer counties. Two of his favorite annual engagements are close to home: Christmas at the Cabin at Red Top Mountain State Park Dec. 7 and the Cartersville-Bartow County Exchange Club Christmas Parade Dec. 12.
With the Exchange Club needing a Santa for its parade several years ago and Heller already being a member, it seemed to be a “perfect fit” for the Christmas staple, said fellow club member Jennifer Matthews.
“As the years went by and his appearance became more and more [similar] to the Santa that we know, it seemed like a perfect fit and also very convenient for us because he’s right there at our meetings,” Matthews said. “... [He] and his wife, Mrs. Claus, are very enthusiastic and passionate and love to participate in the parade and be there for the children, especially, but even adults.”
Serving as the parade’s grand marshals this year, Acworth’s Mr. and Mrs. Claus will wave to the crowd from their sleigh, following the bucket brigade. After lining up at the Tabernacle Baptist Church parking lot at 4 p.m., the parade participants will depart at 6 p.m., turning right on Church Street, left on Bartow Street, left on Main Street, left on Stonewall Street, left on Church Street, right on Tennessee Street and then return to Tabernacle Baptist. Proceeds from the parade — donations to the bucket brigade at the beginning of the event and entrance fees ranging from $50 to $200 — will benefit Advocates for Children and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Bartow County.
“There is a lot of work that goes into coordinating and making sure that everything runs smoothly and everything’s organized and getting everyone lined up,” Matthews said. “So by the time we begin walking the parade route [in the bucket brigade], some of the members, we’re worn. We’re a little tired. But the minute you see the faces of those children and the anticipation and awe and excitement in their eyes to see Santa, then all the hard work disappears.
“As we walk through in the bucket brigade, I will many times say, ‘Santa’s right behind us, he’s coming’ [to children in the crowd]. And their little faces are like something off of a Norman Rockwell card. It just about will bring tears to your eyes, because they are so excited, so innocent, so believing, and ... those are the moments — that’s what we do all the work for and it’s so worth it.”