David Bates thinks he's Santa Claus. The 69-year-old Tulsan has the physique. He has the beard, a real beard. He has the rosy cheeks, the soft eyes and the warm, jovial smile. He has the red suit, which he bought for about $300. If he didn't already claim to be Santa Claus, it would be recommended that he fill out an application for the iconic role. He would get the job.
Bates is in his fourth year as one of Tulsa's many Santas that grace the city's holiday surroundings and events. After retiring four years ago from St. Francis hospital, Bates decided to kick off his boots, relax and let his hair down -- or, in this case, his beard grow out.
Bates' friends and family members then began to notice his strong resemblance to Santa Claus, and this compelled Bates to dress as Santa for Halloween one year. In his full garb on Halloween night, Bates thoroughly enjoyed each and every time he heard the doorbell ring. The neighborhood trick-or-treaters shared his joy. Their faces changed instantly when Bates opened the door. Some kids froze with astonished looks on their faces, wondering if Bates was crazy and had mistaken which holiday it was. Others immediately lit up and yelled, "Santa!" Naturally, Bates handed out candy canes, which he said "are extremely hard to find in October." It was in the reactions from the kids that Bates reveled. "Where's Rudolph? and "Why are you here?" were some of the children's inquiries.
After that night, Bates knew this would be one Halloween costume worth resurrecting. Shortly after, he heard Philbrook needed a replacement Santa to fill in for the season. "That's when I fell in love with doing it," Bates said. "I don't do malls or shopping centers. Those are too strenuous." He keeps his holiday season schedule full of small individual gatherings, private parties, nursing homes, museum and library trips and hospital visits.
"Those are where you get a great feeling...when a child just jumps in your arms and buries their head in your shoulder," he said.
Of course, Santa Claus can't keep his hectic schedule and children's wish lists straight without the help of his right-hand woman, Mrs. Claus. Two years ago, Bates' wife Sandy jumped aboard the sled and began to attend holiday engagements with her husband of 48 years.
When asked about some of the stranger requests that children have made in years past, Bates replied with an, "Oh, mercy." He said the best instances are those when the child is so much in awe that he or she can't remember what they want for Christmas. One specific time, Bates mentioned, was when a 4-year-old boy sat on his lap and very adamantly described the exact Thomas the Train toy that he wanted. "You would have thought this boy was 30 years old the way he animatedly described the toy," Bates said. Another time, Bates was walking through the airport in his "casual" Santa costume (red cotton pants and top) and a child's eyes lit up as he walked by. "Then, the child spun around and ran toward me and hugged on me. She didn't say a word the whole time."
Are young children aware of the economic crisis the nation is dealing with at the moment? "Maybe," Bates said. "Quite a few children have asked for nothing this year. I'm not sure whether or not it's a sign of the time." Bates said he has an auto response for the more sophisticated, thoughtful children. "Are you real?" they ask. "Well, are you real?" he replies. "Yes." "Well, then I am too. I'm right here also."
Touche, little Tommy.
And, what about all the naughty little boys and girls? Bates wisely chooses to turn the question into a fun game. At this point in the interview, he pulls out a white glove, puts it on, and asks this interviewer to pull his finger. Uh-oh. The tip lights up red. Like all the children, this interviewer has been nice, but wonders what happens when the battery dies and little Susie wants to know if she has been good?
I'm a Believer
Imagine 300 Santa Clauses in one setting. If you are a parent, it almost sounds like a nightmare. If you are a music fan, it sounds like a Flaming Lips concert. If you are a David Bates, it sounds like a gathering of who he calls his "helpers," or his peers. Bates traveled to a conference not long ago in Branson, Mo., where hundreds of Santas got together and walked the streets. Although confused, the kids "had no problem and accepted" the mass number. Bates said it was the parents who were freaking out. "They knew they were going to have to explain it to their kids," he said.
Bates said the believer years are from age four to eight. "After that, the seeds of doubt are planted," he said. "But if they want to believe, they will continue to do so." So, Bates continues to perfect his Santa gig as best he can. "You learn how to properly laugh because anything too boisterous will scare them," he said. The gentle giant mentality comes naturally to Bates, a loving father and grandfather who boasted of his own kids' and grandkids' achievements. "You couldn't do this job without having the joy and pleasure of children. That's the best part." Bates also likes to hand out a card to the children he sees that explains God's love for them and that the greatest gift of all was Jesus Christ. For Bates, the legacy and tradition hold the utmost value.
Bates said the best Santas have an absolute love of children and a love for life. However, he said his role as the man in the big red suit isn't always cheery and bright. Last week, Bates spent an afternoon in the gift shop of the St. Francis Children's Hospital. A 2-year-old child and grandmother approached him and Bates asked if the child would be going home for Christmas. The grandmother responded that they wouldn't be going home and the child's condition was terminal. "This breaks your heart," Bates said. "And so I told the child I would pray they get well."
He said he never promises anything to the children, or anything he knows cannot be kept by the parents. Bates also mentioned a heartfelt story that happened in Bartlesville to another Santa Claus he knows. Bates said a child told the Santa they he wanted his dad to come home for Christmas. Santa asked, "Where is he?" And the child said Iraq. "All the men there started crying, and then the Santa said, 'I can't do anything about that, but you know who can?' And he pointed upward," Bates said. "Then everyone prayed he'd come home, and while we prayed a soldier came in from down the hall. We all just started crying and crying."
Makin' a List
Life in the North Pole provides a cushion from the modern world and its technological advancements. While Santa prides himself on his own creativity going on in his renowned toy workshop, he knows he can find ways to make the job a little easier from year to year. Currently, Bates works on customizing a chair of his own. It needs to be sturdy, mobile and extremely comfortable. Made of thick, strong wood, the chair will hold up to 1,100 pounds so the kiddos can pile on. Bates has no plans to start a reindeer farm in T-Town, and his sled runs fine. Plans for a suit upgrade are in order for next year, but other than that, Bates claimed he has all he needs. "All I ever want is the love and adoration of the kids and my family. I already think that I have more than I deserve. I have all I can ask for."
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