Being Santa Claus: How a Southwest Virginia man became the beloved figure

Zach Vance • Dec 23, 2018 at 7:26 PM

It would be tough to find someone who has made as many children smile as Bill McKee, who sports a white beard and oftentimes wears a red suit, large belt and black boots. 

However, the 68-year-old does not consider himself a “Santa impersonator,” even though he has regularly portrayed the legendary figure known as Saint Nicholas for the last 21 years. 

“When I’m in the suit, especially for some of those younger kids and some on the fence who aren’t quite sure, I’m the real deal because I don’t pretend to be anybody. I never tell them I’m Santa. When they ask me, I tell them, ‘Only you know the answer to that,’ ” McKee, who lives in Glade Spring, Virginia, said. 

“The one thing children and young people will know when I talk with them ... the one thing they understand is that whoever I am, I am real, and I’m not just looking at them. I see them. ... It’s just been a blessing and every one of those encounters, I’ve learned more and came to a better understanding of just being a human being. And once I understood being a human being, being Santa was kind of natural.”  

Each holiday season, and sometimes year round, McKee can often be found at Speedway in Lights, Niswonger Children’s Hospital, Blackbird Bakery or any Christmas event in Southwest Virginia where is usually surrounded by children.

Becoming Santa never once crossed McKee’s mind until he was approached by Vernon Waters, a Damascus, Virginia, resident who’d portrayed Santa for 44 years. 

“He called me up one early fall and asked me if I would fill in for him that year. Physically, he just couldn’t do it. I asked for a couple days to think about it because even though I’d never thought about doing it, I had some concept of the gravity and the importance of what I would be doing,” McKee said. 

At the time, other than being a little heavy around the waist, McKee said did not look like Santa since he lacked a beard and had dark brown hair. Luckily, Waters loaned him his designer white beard, his hat and a red suit. 

“The next year, after he saw he liked what I was doing, he literally gifted me my first suit. I still wear it. I have three others now because I do so many events in November and December that I couldn’t get by with one suit,” McKee said. “After that first year of wearing that fake beard and all that, I fell in love with portraying Santa Claus but I absolutely hated that beard. I could not see, I couldn’t breath.”

In addition to the outfit, Waters also passed along an extremely important piece of advice that McKee still follows to this day: Never promise the children anything. 

“Let’s say the scenario where mom is behind the child, (the child) says they want this (and) mom is back there giving me the thumbs up (saying), ‘Yeah, we’ve got it. You’re good to go. You can even tell him if you want.’ Even in that circumstance, I could foresee the potential of, ‘What if they had a fire?’ Everybody is OK, but there is no more presents,” McKee said. “I never promise them because for a lot of children, especially younger ones, Santa’s word is the law. If Santa promised me, it better be there.”

McKee is also careful not to lie to the hundreds of children he encounters each year. 

“It’s one of those tough things because I try to never lie to children, however there are all these grand myths that have come up over the centuries. So I have to kind of walk a fine line. If a child asks me a direct questions, I won’t lie to them,” McKee said. 

There are other times when McKee as Santa has to control his emotions, especially if a grieving child or family just lost a loved one, and when those instances occur, McKee remembers a lesson he learned from Dr. PeShe Wa, a Native American priest in the Ne'ishte' Kiva. 

“Sometimes it’s so heartbreaking, it’s almost unbelievable,” McKee said. “I literally spent a number of years studying priesthood and that brought me to a different level of understanding about sitting and talking with people, even in times of their great loss. Dr. PeShe Wa used to call it detached attachment. You see their feelings, you understand them (and) you can feel them, but you don’t get in there and wallow around those feelings. Because if you do that, I’m no help to them.” 

McKee typically favors in-home or personal interactions compared to being in a mall and sitting in a chair with a line of children waiting to sit on his lap. But, because of the money raised that goes to charity, McKee is one of three Santas who greet children at always-popular Speedway in Lights. 

When asked what the most difficult part of his job is, McKee said there are some nights at Speedway in Lights when the line seems to go on forever and breaks come few and far between. 

“Some nights, especially closer to Christmas, it can be so busy that we may literally be sitting there in the chair with only a quick five-minute, run-to-the-restroom-type break, for up to six, sometimes seven or more hours ... It doesn’t happen real often, but I sometimes get to the point where my mind is almost numb. I don’t even know what to say. I have trouble focusing, and I like to be able to put my entire attention and focus on every child in the family and each family member as much as possible,” McKee said. 

“There have been occasions where I would literally get so exhausted, I did not know if I could talk to another person. I remember one night, I was at that point in Speedway in Lights, when the next family who came up to have their picture taken, had a picture with them. It was of a young man, one of their other children, who had cancer and had passed away. They wanted me to hold the picture in the family portrait. Well, I knew the family, and I knew the young man and had visited with him at St. Jude’s clinic on a number of occasions. You talk about an injection of energy. Wow. I was fresh. I could have done another six hours. It was a very special time for me.” 

As evidenced, McKee takes “the sacred role” seriously, and without his belief in the true spirit of Christmas, becoming Santa would be impossible, he said. 

“The one absolute truth: If I did not believe in the true spirit of Christmas and the very real magic ... I wouldn’t be wearing the suit. And it’s not for me or about me, it’s just something I was given to do and that I try to do the best I can,” he said. 

McKee will be hosting a Christmas radio special on 90.7 WEHC FM beginning at 8 p.m. Christmas Eve. To listen live to his radio broadcast, visit www.wehcfm.com.








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