Meet the Man Under the Santa Hat

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Chapel Hill resident Steve Gillham felt like he had found his calling – as jolly old St. Nick

Steve Gillham as Santa Claus
Steve Gillham suits up as the jolly old man in red for the holiday season.

By Anne Tate | Photography by John Michael Simpson

Steve Gillham didn’t think he looked like Santa Claus – for most of his life, anyway. And he certainly never imagined he would one day be Santa Claus. But then he got a call from UNC Children’s Hospital and never looked back.

Steve and his wife, Debra Gillham, moved to Chapel Hill from Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, in 1996. When Debra, then a pediatric nurse at UNC Children’s Hospital, brought Steve to social gatherings, her colleagues noticed his short white beard.

So in 2004, it was clear who to call when the hospital’s Santa moved away right before Christmas – a recreational therapist soon asked Steve to fill in. He said “yes” without hesitation.

Dissatisfied with the hospital’s Santa suit, Steve set out to find the perfect outfit. “I thought, ‘Oh, my goodness, these are the children who are in the hospital over Christmas,’” Steve says. “I didn’t want to show up wearing spats and a Walley World [from ‘National Lampoon’s Vacation’] suit.”

So, Steve emailed Santa legend Tim Connaghan for help and got a call back the same day. Two weeks later, Steve received a package. “I opened it up, and it [contained] the most gorgeous red suit with beautiful fur on it,” Steve says. “It was like opening up a box and finding Superman’s costume.”

The suit was just the first component of Steve’s festive look. He bought leather boots from his neighbor, a motorcyclist who happened to wear the same size shoe. In another coincidence, an optometrist gave Steve a pair of gold antique eyeglasses – which were Steve’s exact prescription – from his personal collection. “I tried them on and was looking at Santa Claus in the mirror,” Steve says. To top off the ensemble, Steve called a leathersmith to purchase a brass sleigh bell ring, but the rings were unfortunately sold out. Then, one week before his debut as Santa, Steve saw a UPS truck pull up to his house and heard a jingle coming up the driveway. He opened the box and found a sleigh bell ring. “There’s always time for one more, Santa,” the accompanying note read.

On Steve’s first day as Kriss Kringle, he visited kids on five hospital floors with Debra “the Driver” by his side. “I was hooked,” Steve says. “Once you do it, if your heart’s in the right place, there’s no going back.” Steve worked as a luthier, real estate agent and scoutmaster for the Boy Scouts before transitioning to the red suit full time in 2018.

After Steve volunteered as a performance-based Santa for five years, he and Debra started Triangle Santa, a service for people to hire St. Nick. During visits with kids, Steve aims to make their time more special than a quick photo-op. He tells each child about the North Pole, his elves and other Santa secrets in true storyteller fashion.

Steve and Debra invented “Smart Santa,” a communication technique that takes interactions with Father Christmas to the next level by personalizing visits. While Steve meets with the kids, Debra talks to their parents and shares information with him, like the child’s name, age or what they got for Christmas last year, through his hidden earpiece. “I’m wired all the time,” Steve says. “I feel like the Secret Service.” The couple now offers Santa training and shares their techniques through Santa and the Driver online classes. Steve was inducted into the International Santa Claus Hall of Fame in 2017 and the Knights of St. Nicholas in 2020.

Seventeen Christmases later, Steve still puts on a red suit, slides on his bell ring and sports his gold glasses every season, returning to his reindeer roots volunteering as Santa at UNC Children’s Hospital every year. He plans to help kids make magical holiday memories for as long as he can. And he’s quick to add: “I wouldn’t be half the Santa I am without Debra.”

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