No pause for Claus
Portraying St. Nick has been full of many magical moments and tons of cookies
It was 39 years ago when Willard Davis [aka Suntree Santa Claus] first wore the red suit, passed out candy and listened to children as they sat on his lap telling him their Christmas wishes.
At that time, Davis was stationed with the U.S. Air Force in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and stepped into the role after a request from the officers’ wives club for a children’s holiday party.
“I had always had the desire to be Santa Claus – from way back in my childhood,” Davis said. “I loved the idea and have always believed in the magic of Christmas and the importance of Santa Claus as part of the holiday.”
According to Davis, it was his wife, Sachiko, who first suggested he dress up as St. Nicholas, aka Santa Claus. The couple had met at a prayer service while he was stationed at Kadena Air Force Base in Okinawa, Japan. They married eight months later.
“My wife suggested I dress up as Santa and we were hopeful I could perform the task, but unfortunately, due to a motorcycle accident I incurred shortly before the holiday season where I endured major injuries, and as a result, I was unable to start my Santa Claus ventures and prayed that I’d soon have another opportunity to do so.”
BEGINNING THE ROLE
After crushing his right leg in the accident, he was sent back to Lackland AFB in Texas where he recovered and was then transferred to Myrtle Beach AFB, where he served as a maintenance superintendent.
“Thankful I was alive and well; it was then I began to revive my interest to start taking on the role as Santa Claus, both as a volunteer and seeking small gigs throughout the community for both charity and profit,” he explained.
After retiring from the Air Force, he and his family moved to Sacramento, California, where he began working on his master’s degree. He was offered a position as ground safety manager in New Mexico at Kirkland AFB, before relocating to Brevard, to be the weapons safety manager at Patrick AFB.
Since 1997, he has been known as the Suntree Santa and began a new career as Santa Claus full time after retiring from the workforce in 2014. Over the years, he has appeared at private parties, businesses and shopping malls. He has also made appearances at local hospitals and schools throughout the area, where he enjoyed reading to children.
LOOKING THE ROLE
It was easy for Davis to play Santa since he has always been on the heavy side, once weighing in at 330 pounds. And the famous white whiskers were not a problem, either.
“I’ve also been able to grow a pretty good beard for the role,” he said.
After being told by his physician several years ago that he would not live much longer if he didn’t slim down, he has since made a concerted effort to watch his weight, despite his love for sweets, especially cookies.
“I do love cookies, especially peanut butter chocolate chip, and though the hugs and cookies are the best thing about the job, I have now chosen to share all of those cookies many of the children gift to me,” he admitted.
He now weighs 206 pounds and wears a smaller suit with no extra padding.
“So far I have had no complaints and definitely feel better.”
Davis enjoys private parties the most and often gets appearance requests from adults who once sat on his lap and now have children and even grandchildren of their own.
When asked what was one of his most memorable incidents, Davis shared the story of a flight he was on in 1996.
“I was traveling to New Mexico, returning back home on a Wednesday just before Thanksgiving,” he recalled. “As the last passenger to board the flight, I remember the flight attendant directed me to seat C26 where she shared there were two children that were sitting in the adjacent row. She told me they had been very rambunctious during the first leg of the flight and then quietly described them as little monsters.
“That was when I was sure the next leg of their flight would likely be one they would never forget. Because the flight was full, the flight attendant could not offer me another seat, but I smiled and told her I should be able to handle the situation and calmly took my seat next to them.
“When the young children continued their antics and mischievous behavior, as I assumed they might, I smiled and turned to them and asked them if they knew who I was. As expected, they replied no.”
Davis told them he was Santa Claus and if they were not going to be respectful of the other passengers and improve their behavior, he was going to bring them a lump of coal, nothing more for Christmas.
“Needless to say, they immediately looked me in the eye, became silent and were as good as gold the remainder of the trip. I knew then that being Santa Claus was the real deal. The stewardess in turn, gave me two small wine bottles and wished me a very Merry Christmas.”
LOVING THE ROLE
As the holiday season nears, David is reflective on his Old St. Nick role.
“I am honored to continue my journey as Santa Claus, one that has led me to being introduced to thousands of children and those who are kids at heart,” he said. “Though I am anticipating Christmas 2022 will be no different than years past, at age 77, I fully expect to be worn out after this holiday season.
“I will continue to tell children of all ages all the little known facts, and answer their questions such as: ‘Where do reindeer live?’”
His answer of course, is, Lapland, the northernmost region of Finland.
“I try to share the correct answers and if they don’t believe Santa Claus, then who else is there to believe?” he said.
Davis and his wife will enjoy a cruise in January, something he said will be needed to just relax and recover from his trip around the globe and beyond this season.
There really is a Santa Claus
I first encountered Santa Claus when my mother took me to a large department store called Shillito’s in downtown Cincinnati.
I had lived in an orphanage prior to reuniting with my mother. I remembered nothing about Santa Claus or Christmas during those years, as children who lived there rarely got gifts unless they were donated.
I was so nervous, sitting upon the lap of a stranger who was dressed in a bright red suit, who began to ask me questions pertaining to my greatest desires for Christmas. I had never experienced anything like this. I remember my hand immediately touched Santa’s beard, as I was quite inquisitive about why this guy had such a long, white beard. It was all new for me.
My hand was immediately drawn to his beard. The next thing I knew it got tangled up in his white, straggly facial hair and I could not get it free. I was devastated. After seeking help from a local beautician to cut my hand free, his beard seemed fine and I was reassured all was going to be OK. Nevertheless I was convinced I had ruined any chances of getting the gifts I had asked for on Christmas.
I went home feeling like I was not a good boy, frustrated and anxious. Days passed and Christmas morning finally arrived. To my surprise, when I rushed to look under the tree, with expectations that I would not find anything, my mother pointed to a brand new flannel shirt and a yellow car that had my name on it. It was from Santa Claus, she told me.
I smiled with a huge sigh of relief and since that morning, nearly 70 years ago, I have been a firm believer that Santa Claus really does exist.
Sue DeWerff Panzarino
Sue is an avid surfer, shark attack survivor and storyteller who loves to write about the wonderful people and great organizations on the Space Coast.