Meet the Santas of Williamsburg

Jolly old Saint Nick brings delight and joy to children each Christmas season. Meet the men behind the costumes who keep the tradition alive.

Father Christmas in Merchants Square
Santa in Yankee Candle Village

There's an adage that Santa Claus doesn't really enter through the chimney; he enters through the heart.

In Greater Williamsburg, you'll find opportunities for the jolly round one to enter your heart in a number of places, including Merchants Square, Yankee Candle Village and Busch Gardens Christmas Town.

What is it like to be the beating heart of a character so beloved? What is it like to spread joy to every girl and boy?

Jim Hines, 66, knows. He's been Santa for 32 years, the last two at Yankee Candle Village after working at Busch Gardens for a few holiday seasons. So does Lance Smith who does double duty as the Santa at the Barnes & Noble on Duke of Gloucester Street and the strolling Father Christmas in Merchants Square and Liberty's Ice Pavilion. 

Smith, who turns 73 in December and has been Santa for 25 years, started out as a magician — he still dips into his bag of tricks — and then gradually slipped into the big red suit, growing into the part by cultivating a white beard year round.

"I woke up one morning and realized how really blessed I was to do this," he says. "I really wanted to give the kids the Santa experience of being with someone who totally accepts them, totally loves them."

Hines, 66, has been Santa for 25 years, starting at the Moose Lodge in nearby Newport News. He works at Yankee Candle Village from March through Christmas Eve, moving from Santa's workshop in the off-season to his spot in the town center under the clock tower during the holiday season.   

"I'm living my dream," Hines says. "One of my dreams, when I started, was to be Santa year-round. Thankfully, Yankee Candle is giving me this opportunity."

Both men are passionate about their purpose: to delight children. They wear white beards throughout the year. They are, as Hines says, "a little bit on the heavy side so it's all natural." They each carry an authentic international driver’s license for Santa to show skeptical children. As a backup for those not easily impressed, Hines has the First Elves Bank MasterCard issued to Santa Claus. Both have honed the patience and the tricks to get antsy children to sit still just long enough for the photographer.  

At Yankee Candle, Hines has a huge naughty or nice book. When children come in, he looks up their name and tells them to listen to Mom and Dad a little more and they'll get a green check for being nice. Some children come in weekly throughout the year or when they're on vacation in the area. One boy came in with his grandfather every Monday at 1 p.m. over the summer break from school. At times, parents will arrive early and offer him prompts for their children — try to listen better or do your homework. Some want to know when their elf on a shelf will be returning and Santa assures them he will arrive about Thanksgiving. 

The hardest request for Hines is from the children who want their mom or dad back from overseas. He tells them that he will say hello and pass along the child's love when he's out on his rounds on Christmas Eve.

It’s an honor for him to surprise a child with a parent who’s home from military duty. He tells them he has a special present and returns with their mother or father. "That's very emotional for me," he says. "They'll remember that moment for the rest of their lives and pass it on for generations."

Smith has the opportunity to portray two holiday characters. As Father Christmas, he strolls through the historic area and Merchants Square posing for pictures, answering questions and offering tidbits — he likes to recommend the root beer on tap at the Blue Talon Bistro and offered in bottles throughout the area. "I look for things that will enhance their visit," he says. "I tell them a little about the history of Christmas in America."

Upstairs at Barnes and Noble, dressed as Santa Claus, he takes time with each child, answering questions. "I want them to remember this as being the happiest time in their life," he says.

He uses a bit of Christmas magic or a joke to break the ice. Often, he will tell children he didn't think Rudolph's nose would be bright enough, touching their nose with a finger that glows bright red. Then he has the child blow it out. 

"It really is the best job in the world, being Santa," he says. "It's this lovefest that's truly a blessing."

At the Hines home, everything from the bedspreads to the pillow to the carpets turns Christmas-themed during the season. "I'm very lucky," he says. "Mrs. Claus is as crazy about Christmas as I am."

The questions are tougher today than they were in the past, thanks to Google. Children will ask about reindeer at the North Pole. They'll ask about the Northern Lights. He stays on his toes, knowing if he wins over a skeptic, they will testify that he's authentic to their friends.

"One time I had a little boy with his older brother and the brother says, 'How do I know you're the real Santa Claus’ and I said that's a really good question," Smith recalls. “It's kind of hard to answer because you can't tell who the real Santa Claus is with your eyes. You have to use your heart.

“He looked at his brother and said, 'He's the real Santa. Only Santa would have answered the question that way.’ "