All Hail The Plainclothes Santas!

By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal

It was one of those beautiful December days that you would love to bottle up and save for opening in the middle of July: the sun was shining and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, there was a slight hint of crispness in the air but it wasn’t cold enough to warrant a jacket. I had arrived at Wal-Mart with visions of Christmas shopping dancing in my head, but I hadn’t a clue as to what to buy. Oh, I had Angle Tree presents to pick up, but figuring out what to buy my mother, brother, nephew, and niece eluded me.

I had made my way back to the toy department and was browsing through the myriad collection of Barbies and stuffed animals when I felt something tug on my paint’s leg. I looked down and spied a bright-eyed young boy, looking up at me with wonderment in his eyes. As I smiled at him, he turned and ran to his mother, who was at the other end of the aisle. He threw his arms around her legs, pointed at me and said “ Mommy, it’s Santa Claus!”

He was right: a few years ago I was asked to play Santa for a Christmas party at a big Children’s Home in North Texas. They had the suit, but they wanted someone large enough to fit into it without the need for padding. That I also brought my own whiskers to the event was a big plus and a big hit with the children. One boy, as he sat on my knee for the photo, reached back to grab my beard and exclaimed: “hey, it’s real!” In subsequent years I’ve taken to growing a fuller beard in the months leading up to December so-as to be even more “Santa-ish.” As a result, I am often noticed by children in the months of November and December, and am sometimes even called “Santa Claus” by an excited toddler. Every time it happens, it brings a smile to my face.

I’m reminded of the humorous psychological quip:

The 4 Stages of Santa Claus:
  1. You believe in Santa Claus
  2. You STOP believing in Santa Claus
  3. You become Santa Claus
  4. You look like Santa Claus
Stage one (1) is a lot fun: you get to experience the mystery and wonderment of the self-giving love of St. Nicholas as funded and implemented by your parents. Stage two (2) is decidedly not fun: some Scrooge (often an older sibling) has told you that Santa Claus doesn’t exist, blown your bubble of Christmas excitement, and left you feeling jilted by your parents for lying to you for years. Stage three (3) is sometimes fun, but usually just a huge drain on the pocket book: you’re buying Christmas presents for everybody else, but rarely does a Plainclothes Santa get a Christmas gift in return. But, then, there’s stage four (4), which may be the best of all: looking like Santa means that people start treating you … well, like Santa! I’m thankful I’ve finally reached that stage!

However, looking back, I must admit that being a Plainclothes Santa had its perks. Yes, it was expensive, but there was always a lot of satisfaction in knowing that you’d gotten someone something that they really, really wanted. All hail the Plainclothes Santas!
Stacks Image p13_n9
The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from