Lebanon’s hometown Santa Claus is about as real as real can be. From the seven-inch snow-white beard surrounding his chin and cheeks to his genial disposition, there’s nothing phony about this Santa’s helper with a Southern accent.
Lebanon's jolly man in red lives Christmas all year round.
Story by KEN BECK. Photos by Amy Rich
Lebanon’s hometown Santa Claus is about as real as real can be.
From the seven-inch snow-white beard surrounding his chin and cheeks to his genial disposition, there’s nothing phony about this Santa’s helper with a Southern accent. He walks the walk and talks the talk. “Children need to believe in something as long as they are taught the true meaning of Christmas. I talk Christmas 12 months out of the year. That’s the way Christmas should be — gift giving the whole year and spreading love,” says Santa’s southern helper, alias Gene Dickson, 78.
He’s busy this time of the year bending an ear and listening to youngsters’ requests. “I let them tell their stories and just sit back and let them talk,” says the Lebanon native, whose Santa guise has been growing on him for the past 21 years.
His role as the jolly old gent in red’s helper began when he was employed in the Rutherford County school system as a building maintenance supervisor at Thurman Francis Elementary School in Smyrna.
“One of the teachers said, ‘You’ve got the fat belly and the beard. If you will get a suit, we’ll make some money for Christmas.’ I went out and bought a suit for $21 at Wal-Mart. Come Christmas time, I didn’t see that man at all,” recollected Dickson.
Since he had the costume, he went ahead with the idea and got a job playing Santa’s helper at the very school he worked at. His debut rocked the place.
“It went pretty good. I appeared on stage and, the kids went wild and were screaming. The big question was, ‘Where are the reindeer?’ “The children asked, ‘Are they up on the roof?’ “I told them, ‘No they are not on the roof.’” Dickson explained that the reindeer were not with him since they only fly once a year on Christmas Eve.
From two or three gigs that year at schools and a church, his business flourished over time. “I bought a suit from Party Place three years later for $79, and then I had opportunity to be Santa’s helper at Green Hills Mall for a while. I went out to J.C. Penny and bought a pair of engineer boots and had them customized into Santa boots and have been wearing them ever since,” said Dickson, who keeps three Santa suits in his closet.
“Each year the holiday business has gotten bigger and better, but last year I cut back a little. I’m getting a little age on me. It’s hard to drive at night. You go some place out of town and sit there for four hours and it gets to be about 10 o’clock, and then I have to change clothes. By the time I get home, it’s 11:30 or 12 o’clock. Too late to be out.
“Christmas Eve is Santa’s night. That‘s when he delivers all the toys. He doesn’t make group appearances on that night, although he has been known to seek out a family and hand deliver a gift.”
In the past, when holding down the fort at Nashville and Murfreesboro malls during the holiday season, this Santa’s helper found the work rewarding in many ways but grueling in others. “Once I worked 47 consecutive days at Hickory Hollow Mall. Santa’s helpers do not take Sundays off. Dickson retired from the mall scene two years ago.
Yes, indeed, this kindly old fellow has learned much from listening to children, and some of their tales are real heartbreakers.
“Santa’s helper is a friend to all young kids, and they will tell their whole family history. They put it all out there and tell all the family problems if he just lends an ear. Someof the stories they tell really shake me up: Like one little girl who said, ‘All I want for Christmas is a blanket and a pillow. I just sleep on the couch.’ “One little girl asked for a car for her mother because some men came and got her mother’s car that morning.”
For Dickson, who these days appears at parties, businesses, churches and schools, the reward comes, he says, “From seeing the excitement on the children’s faces and the enjoyment of meeting a lot of nice people.”
Dickson said to make a good Santa’s helper a man “has to have patience and understanding and try not to embarrass the child or parents in any way.”
December 5th, the veteran helper will make his seventh consecutive appearance in the Lebanon Christmas Parade, but he has a new partner sitting beside him atop the fire engine. “Santa’s helper will be sharing the spotlight with two new partners this year, including an elf in the parade,” Dickson says sharing the scoop.
For this southern Santa’s helper, Gene Dickson’s retirement years have proven to bring many golden moments, most of them because he makes life simple. “I like kids. I worked in schools with kids for a long time. I guess my mind is the mind of a child. Me and kids just get along real well,” he summarizes.
So, what does this Santa’s helper want for Christmas this year?Says the spreader of good cheer with a twinkle in his voice, “I would like for my son, Jeff, to have a condo at Gulf Shores.”
Santa Smiles at Wilson Living Holiday Expo
Have your child’s photo taken with Santa Claus at the second annual Wilson Living Holiday Expo, Friday, Nov. 19, and Saturday, Nov. 20, at The Mill at Lebanon, 300 N. Maple St. Admission is free.
For more info, go to www.wilsonlivingexpo.com.