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Arts & Culture

Why Did Dozens Of Santas Gather At Golden Corral In Durham, NC Recently?

Santa Charlie Easton
Eric Mennel

Content Advisory: If Santa is real to your kids, this story may not be suitable for them.

It was a normal night at the Golden Corral Buffet and Restaurant off Highway 65 in Durham, North Carolina. Men and women just getting off of work were there to have their dinners, with families taking advantage of the all-you-can-eat dessert line.

But in the rear of the restaurant, in a private room with the windows papered over to protect the identity of those inside, are the Triangle Santa Buddies. They’re meeting for the first time since the big day. What do a bunch of professional Santas have to say to one another? A lot, it turns out.

Santa Ron Campbell listens to his fellow Santas debriefing about how this year went
Credit Eric Mennel
Santa Ron Campbell listens to his fellow Santas debriefing about how this year went

The Triangle Santa Buddies has been around for the last 10 years with the purpose of providing resources and support to the men who spend a portion of each year as Santa.
They make sure that anyone in the area who wants a Santa can have one. It’s like a network. If Santa Jim is booked for a company Christmas party, he can call Santa Bob to go down to the local tree lighting ceremony. Most of the Santas in the room tonight are exhausted.

“We need a month to recover because it is really strenuous,” says Santa Billy Davis from Garner. “A lot of times you are sitting for two or three hours. You are worn out from lifting kids. You need some time off, you know. So we wait about a month and then we come back and we sort of debrief.”

Even Santas use iPads.
Credit Eric Mennel
Even Santas use iPads.

Tonight’s meeting is being led by Santa Al Capeheart, who seems to exude all the qualities of Santa — from round belly to red cheeks — so perfectly that I had a hard time remembering that this man does not actually live in the North Pole but in a small town called Pittsboro, just down the road.

Santas often work 13 hours days, six or seven days a week, the full month of December. But it’s not just the time investment, it’s also financial. Colleen Yueker, who also happily goes by Mrs. Claus, is married to a professional Santa.

“Right now he has a minimum of four suits, I have my outfit, plus he has his boots, he has gloves, he has his makeup and, well, you have to have your hair done,” Yueker says. “So yes, there is some money involved in it. But that’s not — it’s just the pure joy that he gets from doing it. That is his Christmas present to himself.”

Santa Jim Dwyer spends the season working as a Mall Santa.
Credit Eric Mennel
Santa Jim Dwyer spends the season working as a Mall Santa.

As a group, the Santas work through issues, like how to guarantee parking right outside a venue, how not to get sick and how to deal with difficult parents who won’t rest until they get the perfect smile.

Some bizarre things also come up during the meeting. One Santa relates a story about a girl who asked for a guinea pig and a snake so she could feed the guinea pig to the snake, and another shares a story about an 8-year-old girl who asked for puberty.

But they take their jobs really seriously. For example, they debate which dry cleaner best cares for the delicate fur on a Santa suit. The Triangle Santa Buddies meets on the third Wednesday of each month all year long. Next month there will be a presentation by a mechanical and aerospace engineer about how Santa pulls off his worldwide flight each year. After that, on April 16th, there will be a tutorial on how to pose more successfully in photographs.

But really, the overwhelming sense is that this group of men are just trying to figure out a way to make it through the doldrums of May and August, anxiously waiting for the Christmas season to come around again.

Santa Claus Buttons
Credit Eric Mennel

Credit Eric Mennel
The Golden Corral sections off a private room to protect Santa’s identities from children.

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