Todd Daum didn’t go looking for Santa Claus — Santa found him.
For 10 months out of the year, Daum, a driver for Cliffside Transportation, is affiliated with the jolly old elf only by resemblance and his CB handle of “Santa.” But come the holiday season, he can’t go anywhere without the spirit of St. Nick preceding him.
“When people call me ‘Santa,’ I just go with it,” said the Ohio native, who’s been driving for five years. “At the truck stops, one of the TAs that we go to on a pretty regular basis, the third-shift clerk doesn’t call me anything but Santa. He knows my real name, but he calls me Santa every time I walk in the door.”
Daum isn’t shy about sharing his Santa persona, either.
“If I see somebody when I’m dressed as Santa Claus and they’ve got their nose in their phone, I walk up and put my arm around them — complete strangers, I don’t know who the heck they are. I’ll put my arm around them and say, ‘Get your phone set up. Let’s take an elfie!’” he shared with a jolly chuckle.
“I have taken so many pictures like that, and the smiles on their faces are always genuine. Even though they’re not a kid anymore, they’re still having fun with it,” he continued. “In today’s society, with everybody hating on everybody else, if I can make somebody smile for five minutes it’s worth every second of it.”
There was a time when such recognition would have brought out the “Grinch” in Daum. For years, he says, he fought the fact that with his flowing white beard and stout build, he was a dead ringer for Kris Kringle. That, teamed with the 52-year-old’s overnights shifts, completed the picture of Santa making his midnight deliveries.
“At first, people were calling me Santa because I look like Santa — and I actually took offense to it,” he said. “It really started pissing me off, because I didn’t think I was that old, you know? ‘Quit calling me Santa. I’m not old enough to be Santa!’”
It took the eyes of a child to change Daum’s heart.
“Then, my youngest daughter, who at the time was 12 years old, said, ‘But Dad, you really do look like Santa,’” he said. “When she told me that, I did a complete 180 and fully embraced it.”
Daum started his career driving fire trucks, a job he’d pined for from an early age. At that time there was no sign of his Santa persona — other than the fact he got to drive a red “sleigh” for a living. Firemen were prohibited from wearing beards, he said, because they interfered with the masks firefighters wore when entering burning buildings.
When he left the fire department, however, Daum let his hair and beard grow — and his jolly alter ego stepped to the forefront. People started offering him holiday gigs almost immediately.
“When I started to let my beard grow out, it started growing out completely gray, which was not a big surprise because my hair was gray. I just let it go. And, I had the physique for (being Santa). In other words, I’m fat,” he said with a laugh.
“I had a couple people ask me to play Santa Claus, and they got me the real cheap ‘dollar-store’ Santa Claus suits,” he said, adding that his Christmasy career expanded to playing Santa Claus for company gatherings. “It just developed from there.”
The more he embraced the concept, the more seriously Daum took the role. He bought a higher-quality Santa suit from a thrift store and began to hone his chops, especially when it came to interacting with children.
“The thing with being Santa: You’ve got to be very, very observant to catch little nuances and little things here and there,” he said. “I had one little girl walk up to me at one of the truck stops. I was just sitting down to eat my lunch, behaving myself, and this little girl walked up and said, ‘How you doing, Santa?’
“I started talking to her, and her brother called her name. So, I was able to call her by her name and call her brother by his name, and (their) mom was just standing there with her mouth agape, watching the whole interaction,” he recalled. “I picked up other little clues — the little boy had a choir shirt on, so I asked him how he was doing in the choir. His mouth hit the floor.”
Because he still makes his living as a driver and has to stick to a schedule, Daum says he is selective about the Santa appearances he makes. If he were able to be a full-time Santa, he could easily handle three or four times as many gigs in November and December than he does. His favorite events, naturally, are those that involve children.
“I don’t have a problem with kids, and never have. Kids don’t bother me a bit. Other people’s children, you spoil them rotten (and then) send them home to their parents. No big deal,” he said, with a few more chuckles.
“It’s one of those things that kids will always remember,” he explained. “Does it hurt me to sit there two minutes longer than I wanted to, just to make their day? No. Doesn’t hurt me in the slightest to spend a few minutes of my time to make a kid feel good.”
Even with the number of “Santa sightings” Daum experiences, both in costume as an official Santa and in the course of his job as a driver, there are some that stand out in his memory. Daum keeps a photo in his phone, showing him in full costume and holding a laughing baby girl. A year after the photo was taken, the child’s mother shared the photo with Daum, along with the sad news that the little girl had passed away.
While this particular memory is bittersweet, Daum lights up when talking about being able to grant special wishes for the children of military personnel.
“Have I done, ‘I want to bring Daddy home for Christmas’ or, ‘I want to bring Mommy home for Christmas’? Yeah, I’ve done three or four of those,” he said.
“(The parents) work it out with me beforehand, and that’s always fun. But that’s also when I take a back seat. I might be Santa Claus, but as soon as mom or dad steps out, I’m gone. I disappear because I don’t want to be there, I want to let the kid be totally enthralled with their parent at that point in time,” he explained.
“So, I completely and totally disappear; change out of my costume and leave, and the parents know that,” he continued. “How I explain it to them is this: It’s not that I don’t want to stick around and witness it, but the kid’s going to look around and say, ‘Where did Santa go?’ and the parents say, ‘Well, he must have gone back to the North Pole.’ That’s part of the magic.”
Daum is accompanied on his adventures by a friendly feline named Vincent. Click here to read more!
Dwain Hebda is a freelance journalist, author, editor and storyteller in Little Rock, Arkansas. In addition to The Trucker, his work appears in more than 35 publications across multiple states each year. Hebda’s writing has been awarded by the Society of Professional Journalists and a Finalist in Best Of Arkansas rankings by AY Magazine. He is president of Ya!Mule Wordsmiths, which provides editorial services to publications and companies.