Decked out in his red suit with white trim, George Fleming knows there are kids who sit on his knee yet don’t believe in Santa.
“I try to tell them encouraging stuff – that I believe in them, and they have to believe in the spirit of Christmas,” he said. “Even if I’m just some old man they don’t believe in, that is not the important part at all … I just want them to have a good Christmas.”
Since 2004, George and his wife, Lorene, retirees who live in Florence, have portrayed Santa and Mrs. Claus for the Sedalia Area chapter of The Dream Factory, which grants dream experiences to critically and chronically ill children. As George’s beard started transitioning to white, someone at his church told him The Dream Factory was looking for a new Santa and they had an extra red suit. As he looked into it, Lorene decided to join the fun and created her own Mrs. Claus costume.
Linda J. Johnson, treasurer for the local Dream Factory chapter, said the Flemings became part of the Dream Factory family the first time they entered the annual Christmas party, with George shaking his reindeer bells and offering a hearty “Ho, ho, ho.”
“They are truly sincere in their roles and are interested in what each child has to say,” Linda said. “They have been with our organization long enough to call many of the children by name when they have their turn to tell Santa what they want each year. This makes the moment even more magical for the children.”
While he typically limits his Santa experiences to The Dream Factory and Flat Creek Baptist Church, George has taken on some additional appearances, including a children’s painting party. A boy had painted a Christmas tree and George said it was one of the prettiest ones he’s ever seen.
“Before I left, he gave me that painting,” George said. “So he really feels good about himself … Santa told him how great his Christmas tree was and it made him feel so good he wanted to share it. To me, that is part of Christmas, sharing good with people.”
George is pleased that he gets to share his Santa experience with Lorene. He wears a hearing aid, so having Mrs. Claus within earshot is helpful, especially if children don’t speak very loud or are shy. Lorene also helps when children ask for something new or trendy. A few years ago, a girl asked for Sperrys, and George had no idea she was talking about shoes. Lorene was able to provide some clarity.
“I’m a support person,” she said. “Sometimes the kids will come to me if they won’t go to Santa.”
George enjoys his banter with the children. He will ask what school they attend and how their grades are. If they ask for Santa to bring them something over the top like a horse, he will say he needs to talk with their parents. He also offers those children a little-known Santa “fact:” Reindeer and horses don’t get along, which makes it hard for Santa to bring them a horse.
“I do things like that, kid around with them, ask if they have been a good boy or girl and answer any questions they might have,” George said. “It’s just a joy, and I mean that.”
Linda praised the Flemings’ loving and generous nature.
“They have truly found their niche in their retirement years,” she said. “Our organization has truly been blessed to be a part of their lives.”
Lorene noted that since she and George have no grandchildren, their time portraying Mrs. Claus and Santa is especially fulfilling.
“We feel like we see the true reason for Christmas, not in the gifts or the toys, but in the spirit of the kids’ hearts,” she said. “It means a lot to us. We come away with a lot of joy in our hearts.”
For George, entering a room wearing that red suit is uplifting not only for the children but also for him.
“Once you see that look in their eye, that they know you’re Santa, you can’t help but be happy and cheerful,” he said.