Meet Macon’s Real Santa
Meet: Glenn Heald aka Santa Claus Native: Thomasville, GA Occupation: Retired RAFB; Macon’s Real Santa
When I talked to Santa Claus on the phone this morning, he was cheerfully zooming up I-75, heading towards one of several retail-store appearances scheduled on his busy December calendar. Instead of a famous red-nosed reindeer guiding his sleigh, a robotic GPS voice gave instructions in the background to help him navigate highways and traffic. Even still, Santa – or Glenn Heald, as he’s occasionally known – embodied the spirit of Christmas, gracious and sweet even in interstate traffic, punctuating his commentary with robust “Ho, ho, ho”s and speaking with warmth and enthusiasm about his later-life second career as the most famous and beloved bearded guy around.
Mr. Heald was born and raised in Thomasville, Georgia, just north of the Florida border; he had a long and storied career in the United States Air force, spending time stationed in Italy, Korea, and the middle east before landing back in middle Georgia and putting in 17 years at Robins Air Force Base. One afternoon while walking around the Macon Mall helping his then-wife recover from hip surgery, he was approached by a photographer from JC Penney’s portrait studio. “I was still on active duty, but had started my retirement final leave,” says Mr. Heald. “I’d stopped shaving, and my beard was coming in white. The photographer saw that I had blue eyes and high cheekbones, and she said to me, ‘You’re gonna make a great Santa! Let me take your picture!’” That JC Penney’s photographer sent the picture to her boss, who agreed that Mr. Heald had the perfect Santa look and hired him to work for them, which he did for the next three years.
His career portraying the famed holiday character took off even more when he was contacted by Bass Pro Shop to fill in last-minute for an unavailable Santa; he brought his son, a photographer, with him, and his successful initial appearance turned into a seven year stretch working with Bass Pro Shop making families happy and spreading Christmas cheer. These days, Santa Glenn keeps an amazingly busy holiday schedule doing both public appearances all over the South and bookings for private interactive photography sessions and parties.
Santa Glenn has also spent a solid amount of his time and energy in the pursuit of being the most authentic, sincere, well-rounded Santa around – he’s traveled to several different Santa Claus schools around the USA, among them St. Nicholas Institute in Michigan, a faith-based program whose aim is to promote deeper spiritual education and insight amongst the Santas of the world. He’s even been ordained as a Bishop of the Church of St. Nicholas, and was knighted into the Order of the Knights of St. Nicholas – “In New York, we had this gigantic Santa event,” Heald says. “They called me up onstage out of the audience to my surprise, and the next thing you know, I’m kneeling and being knighted with a big sword that came all the way from Italy. Some of the manna that came out of St. Nicholas’ actual tomb was used to anoint me.” Pretty impressive stuff for a career that all started at a JC Penney’s.
His Christian faith is tremendously important to Santa Glenn – “My biggest textbook these days is the Holy Bible,” he says – and he’s even written a book that narrates and explains the life of the original St. Nicholas in a Christian context. Santa Talks! by Glenn Heald is available on Amazon and can be ordered through Barnes & Noble, and in addition to the life story of St. Nicholas, the book also contains sections answering all the questions that kids have asked Santa Glenn throughout the years.
With his long white hair and beard, stately physique, rosy cheeks, and twinkling eyes, it’s hard for Santa Glenn to be out of character when it’s not the Christmas season, but that’s okay, because for him, Christmas is less about a date on the calendar and more about a belief system he carries with him all year long. He works hard to preserve the magic and mystery of Santa in the eyes of children whenever he can, though. “Sometimes kids will come up to me in the grocery store and ask why I’m not at the North Pole,” Heald says with a chuckle, “but I just explain to them that it’s cold up there, and I’m down here on vacation in middle Georgia where it’s nice.”
You can find Santa Glenn on the web at www.santaclauslives.com, on Facebook by searching The Santa Experience Macon, and on Christmas Eve at your house leaving some toys if you’ve been good.