Sharing the magic of Santa Claus

By Chelsea Retherford | Living 50 Plus

Before he was Santa Claus, Russ Creel was the jolly old physical education teacher for 21 years in the Lauderdale County School System.

Before that, he had worked with children in other capacities in Montgomery and other areas across the state.

It was his career in education that inspired him to don the red suit as Santa for the first time in 2018.

“I taught a few classes and worked with kids on basic reading skills and things like that, but primarily what I did for like 90% of my teaching career was elementary P.E. I got paid to play,” he said with a laugh not unlike a ho ho ho.

“I worked with children for about 40 years before I started venturing into this character.”

When asked what led to his Santa gig, Creel said a couple of different things came into play.

He had already picked up a part-time job to supplement his teacher’s salary with Wynn Enterprises (now Wynn Marine, LLC), building windows for Tiffen Motorhomes.

During the 2017-18 school year, Creel said he was approached by his supervisor, who asked him if he’d considered coming to work there full-time.

“I realized that was my 25th year teaching in the state of Alabama, so I told him to make me an offer, and they did. I had a master’s degree, and they were paying basically what I was making teaching, plus I was going to get to draw my retirement. That was kind of a no-brainer,” Creel said.

While he couldn’t refuse the offer, Creel came to realize the following fall that without his students, something was missing.

“After I retired, I had some problems with depression,” he admitted. “I had been around kids for so much of my life and then, all of a sudden, I wasn’t.

“Now, I worked with some wonderful guys. They taught me a lot, because I had never done factory work, and I was learning a lot about machinery. The guys were great, but I missed the kids.

“I didn’t think about it too much that summer, but when school started back, I was getting up making windows and talking to grown-ups. That’s when it kicked in.”

Coincidentally, in the fall of 2017, before he had left school, Creel had begun growing out his beard.

“I didn’t know at that time that I was going to be retiring in May of 2018,” he said. “That November, I started growing out my beard, and I hadn’t grown a beard in 30 years. I just wanted to. No-shave-November had already started, and we were halfway through the month when I decided.”

When Creel’s stubble came in, he said he was shocked to see it was white.

By the following spring, Creel’s white beard had grown to a full inch, and he began getting several comments and suggestions about playing Santa the Christmas icon. After his short bout with depression, he remembered the idea and began making preparations.

Creel and his wife, Nicole, purchased his first suit, a backdrop and some other Santa supplies and had about 30 bookings before Christmas Eve of 2018.

He said they worked with one photographer that first year, but by the next season, the business grew exponentially. By their sixth Christmas season, the Creels added Mrs. Claus into the model, and by October they had already booked 120 Santa visits, events and photo shoots with more than 20 photographers.

“This year, it’s more difficult booking home visits because there are so many businesses taking an interest in us and asking us to be a part of their Christmas season,” Creel said.

He and his wife have had engagements like an annual “Paint with Santa” event at the Artsy Place in Muscle Shoals; school visits in Lauderdale, Colbert, Franklin and Lawrence counties; and private home bookings.

They’ve partnered or volunteered with great causes like Every Piece Matters for Autism Awareness and the Shylee Smiles Foundation for families impacted by cancer.

When his calendar fills up, Creel doesn’t mind referring clients to other Santas who have helped him hone his craft.

“I have several good friends who are amazing Santas,” he said. “One has been a great mentor to me, and we just refer people to them because we know these guys are going to do a great job. They’ve got a heart for this.”

“There are enough people to go around,” Nicole Creel agreed with her husband about sharing clients with others in the business.

While her husband is now fully retired, Nicole came into her role while holding a full-time job with the Colbert County Probate Office.

“It gets hairy at times,” she said of keeping up with Santa bookings, which the couple now manages solely through their social media account, Santa Creel.

“There have been times I couldn’t answer our page until I got home because we were so busy at work. There was just no way. When he was still working, we’d come home and try to answer everyone and get them on the book, but we had to communicate with each other to make sure we weren’t double booking.”

Even as a busy working woman, Nicole supported her husband behind the scenes at many of his photo shoots, which is how she accidentally stumbled into her character one Christmas.

“We were doing a shoot and there was a little girl who was pretty distraught with me,” Russ said. “Nicole is standing there, wearing blue jeans and a black and red buffalo plaid shirt, and she starts talking to the girl.”

The Creels said the girl was inconsolable even by her mother and grandparents, but when Nicole stepped in, the little one calmed down long enough to take the photo — in Nicole’s arms with Santa at a safe distance behind her, of course.

This was Nicole’s debut.

She was encouraged by the photographer to start doing shoots alongside her husband, so she contacted their costume designer, “Elf Annette” Campbell, who owns The Sewing Elves in Trinity.

“We’ve gotten to be really good friends with them, and she’s made several outfits for us,” Nicole said. “Every single thing she’s made for me, I would tell her my ideas and she just ran with it.”

While Nicole loves stepping into her role as much as her husband delights in his, she said playing Mrs. Claus comes with some conditions, and Elf Annette is happy to oblige.

“I told her, I don’t want to be old lady Mrs. Claus,” Nicole said definitively. “I will not wear a bonnet or anything on my head.”

Russ enjoys putting a unique Creel spin on the classic characters too, often spending lots of his free time developing their characters.

Having worked with children for so long, he said he knew to anticipate some questions from curious onlookers and skeptical visitors. One of the first questions he was asked on a school visit was “Where is Rudolph?”

Now Russ comes prepared. His white pickup truck sports “Santa” on the driver’s side window, “Mrs. Claus” on the passenger side, and “Santa CEO” on the license plate. The truck also comes with its own backstory.

Whenever Russ or Nicole is asked about the reindeer or his sleigh, Russ explains that he and his team only fly at night when it’s safest because most airplanes are grounded. When he does fly into the Shoals to visit children, he conveniently leaves his sleigh at the Muscle Shoals airport hangar, where his reindeer can be cared for while he takes on his Santa duties.

“When I come to the Shoals, it’s the coolest thing,” Russ keeps up the gimmick. “They give me a pretty white truck to drive, and they even put my name on it! I’ll have kids go out and look at my truck, and they go, ‘They really do!’”

He also cautions children he sees close to Christmas: They never know when they might see him in town throughout the year as he compiles his naughty and nice list.

Whenever he’s caught out of costume in a grocery store or running errands, he employs a trick he learned from another Santa mentor and former mayor of Phil Campbell, Steve Bell.

“I carry a gold coin with me,” Russ explains. “The coin says, ‘I was caught being good.’ Santa Steve Bell told me about it. Now, I always have the coins in my pocket, and I’ll say: ‘Do you know how you recognized me out of my suit? It’s because you were being good.”

He and Nicole said they’ve had countless special moments with children and their families since they took on their roles.

“We get the bigger blessing out of it,” Nicole said.

Russ agreed and said he feels most blessed when he knows he’s shared something greater than the magic of Santa Claus, like one Christmas when one of his young visitors expressed a wish to pass on her gifts to a family in need.

“I don’t want kids to get so lost in Santa that they forget the real meaning of Christmas,” Russ said. “You know, just like we’ve been given the greatest gift there ever was, I’m just here to remind you to give to others the way we were given to.”