The holiday season means many families are seeking a Santa Claus to kindle the spirit of Christmas in their children. Although growing older may dull the magical curiosity once felt around Christmastime, seeing Santa at a local mall or holiday festival can bring back those old feelings as we wonder what the merry, bearded man's story is.
Despite having never met, two Chattanooga Santa Clauses lead very similar lives when it comes to their Santa journeys. Both have full-time day jobs when they are not in the red-and-white suit. Both of them decided to "become" Santa after an encounter with a stranger. And they both have witnessed the children and families they meet experience a range of human emotions. Most importantly, though, they have in common a full, white beard that launched both of their Santa careers.
Scenic City Santas
A Santa's Promise and the Legacy of a Belt Buckle
When Brian Weaver first stepped into the Santa suit six years ago, he and his wife, Jodi, had just moved to Chattanooga from Dayton, Ohio. As a 47-year-old corporate business manager, he never imagined he would become Santa Claus later that year.
The journey began when Weaver stopped shaving his quick-growing beard, a decision fueled partially by laziness, he says, but also out of curiosity to see how it would look. Meanwhile, he and Jodi had to move her parents into a nursing home in Chattanooga.
When the beard started to emerge, a coordinator for the nursing home asked Weaver if he would consider being Santa for the approaching holidays. He responded that it depended on how growing his beard went.
Fortunately, it grew into the thick Santa beard that everyone knows and loves, but it wouldn't be complete without the accompanying suit. He and Jodi scoured the internet, eventually coming across a perfect suit sold by a man in Georgia.
When Weaver went to see the suit in person, he was greeted by Paul Bilodeau, or "Santa Paul," a skinny, older gentleman in Woodstock whom Weaver didn't think looked much like Santa.
His house, however, said otherwise.
"He had everything. He had [Christmas] stuff hanging from the rafters. He had stuff hanging on the wall," Weaver says.
Bilodeau was happy to sell the suit to Weaver, but he said he couldn't part with his belt buckle, which was engraved on the back with the initials of prior Santas.
Weaver was not leaving without that belt buckle.
"We talked and negotiated. We started telling stories, and we laughed; we cried," says Weaver. "It was one of those things where you'd never know how greatly the people you meet will impact you and just how quickly it can happen."
With teary eyes, Weaver recalls why Bilodeau was giving up the over-25-year gig: He was dying from terminal kidney disease.
Bilodeau agreed to hand over the belt buckle as long as Weaver understood the weight of what this responsibility entailed.
"He told me that very day, 'Once you start doing this, you start seeing the impact that you provide for the children and their families. It's not just putting on a suit.' He said this will go off 'like an atom bomb.'"
And that it did. Weaver's journey as Santa began that Christmas at the Standifer Place nursing home. Since then, he has expanded his Santa duties by attending festivals and parades, visiting families at their homes and joining various Christmas celebrations.
He is also a new addition to the Magical Christmas Experience, during which a studio in Chattanooga allows families to book private sessions for their children to have personal interactions and photos with Santa.
To perfect their Mr. and Mrs. Claus act, Brian and Jodi attended Northern Lights Academy, a school for Santa Clauses in Atlanta, Georgia, to learn proper Santa etiquette.
"When we moved down here and we started our business and got to know more people, I was like, 'Huh. Of all the things I've done in my life, this is my gift,'" Weaver says. "And all I had to do was grow my beard."
As Weaver reflects on the great number of children and families he has met, along with the hundreds of pictures that exist of him on people's walls, refrigerators and office desks, it's clear that his presence makes a lasting mark.
To young children, Santa Brian is the embodiment of hope and Christmas cheer. While this tends to fade in the pre-teen years, according to Weaver, it all comes flooding back later when adults connect with their inner child.
"I think that once that person of whatever age finds love for the first time, and they want to do something for that other person, especially around the holidays, they understand this is what it's all about," Weaver explains. "And that is the spirit of Christmas."
Despite his love for what he does, Weaver says it can take an emotional toll, especially when he visits with elderly people.
"Knowing that you're talking with somebody who has experienced life and love and knowing that they're on the backside of life, those are the harder moments to indulge in and speak about," he says.
He has emotional moments with children as well, such as one boy who told Santa Brian to give his presents to someone less fortunate on Christmas.
"I find myself trying to pull myself out of the emotion as much as I can," Weaver says. "And then, once it's over, I just sit back in the Santa chair and sigh. Then I just wait for somebody to give me a screaming baby."
He says that most of the time, however, encounters are all smiles — "more smiles per gallon," he likes to say — which is something that motivates him year after year. He has plenty of funny stories, like the five-year-old little girl who insisted that she had to have a bidet for Christmas. Not having any biological children of his own, Weaver says he feels that he is an honorary father to many, much like Father Christmas himself.
"If I can be a part of the embodiment of a particular memory, that legacy is probably my best gift for myself," he says. "Those short moments that we have, whether they last for years or a lifetime, are all worth it."
Weaver hopes to continue being Santa Brian for as long as he possibly can and commits himself to carry on the legacy of Bilodeau, who died earlier this year. He was buried with a custom-made gold coin from Weaver.
One side shows a photo of Weaver with the words "I will always believe in Santa," and the other side reads "Believe."
Weaver has a huge collection of Santa-related paraphernalia, including a red hot-rod (a 1923 Ford Model T) that doubles as a sleigh, a custom-made Santa ring and a giant "naughty or nice" book. But it is Weaver's promise to Bilodeau that reminds him that despite all that, it's really his kind and nurturing demeanor that truly makes him Santa Claus. That and the facial hair, of course.
"I'm just fortunate enough to have a great big old honkin' beard," he says. "It's nothing more than genetics and time and a little bit of patience."
Stories With Santa: Tales of the Hilarious and the Heartwarming
Nearly 20 years ago, Tim Walker noticed his hair growing whiter than usual, eventually resembling a familiar character.
"I looked in the mirror one day and saw Santa staring back," he says.
Inspired by what he saw in his reflection, he continued growing out his beard, just to see if it would grow into the long, snowy symbol of the holiday that Walker envisioned.
On a routine grocery-store trip in 2004, a stranger approached him, asking if he worked as a Santa Claus anywhere. This encounter sparked Walker's interest and encouraged him to look into getting a suit.
The next year, he picked up a gig at a Sears portrait studio and another one with the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum's North Pole Limited, a train ride experience in Chattanooga that takes passengers to the "North Pole" to visit Santa.
Walker fit the part well, so he stayed at Sears for three seasons and North Pole Limited until 2014, when he got the opportunity to be a Santa at Ruby Falls. He still works there today, as Kris Kringle during the holiday season and as a tour guide year-round. He also participates in a limo service that hosts a "Christmas Light Jammie Ride" — a limo excursion through Chattanooga's light displays while in your pajamas, with hot chocolate and Santa.
Aside from the Santa stuff, Walker stays busy as a computer programmer for Hamilton County. He also plays violin for the UTC symphony orchestra and the Red Bank Baptist orchestra.
With almost two decades of Santa experience now, Walker has amassed countless unforgettable moments and heartwarming interactions. One mischievous youngster, for example, ran up to him, gave his beard a few tugs and ran away yelling, "It's real! It's real!"
Another kid, however, was not as brave.
"This kid comes running around the corner. I thought he was going to jump on my lap and knock me over," Walker recalls. "But he skids to a stop, leaves tracks in the dirt and refuses to come any closer."
But Santa's magic isn't only reserved for the little ones. One Christmas Eve, Walker and his wife were dining at a local restaurant when a family came up and asked him to help surprise their teenage daughter with a new car.
They handed him the keys, and as she arrived, he drove the car up and got out to greet her with a "Merry Christmas!" She laid eyes on the car and, without a word, threw her arms around Walker.
"I walked back to my table, and there was a $20 bill lying there, but I had already gotten paid with a hug," he says with a laugh.
What seems to be a common theme with working as a Santa Claus is that some moments can hold more weight. Walker says there is an emotional aspect to the job and that it is sometimes more touching than happy-go-lucky. He explains how a woman sat on his lap one Christmas season and burst into tears as she was remembering a tradition she had with her child who'd passed away earlier that year.
"You feel like there's never enough you can do, but you do what you can," Walker says.
There are also times when children ask those hard-hitting questions that leave Walker speechless and wondering. For example, what do you say when a child asks for his parents to get back together?
This comes with the territory of being Santa Claus, though, and it is a job that is year-round. Walker says that even in the summer, as long as he has that full beard, he'll get kids who spot him and call out, recognizing him as Santa.
"Even in May or June, a kid will yell at me from across the parking lot," he says.
Walker doesn't take offense, and in true Santa fashion, he always responds with a "Ho ho ho!"
"If I didn't like it, I wouldn't look like this."
As Santa Claus, Walker cherishes the moments he shares with children and the way their faces light up when they see him. Beyond the joy he brings others, this role has also pushed him to come out of his shell and discover more about himself.
"I'm not generally a very outgoing, talkative type of person," he explains. "But I put on that red suit, and all that changes."