Becoming Santa Al

For Pittsboro man, Christmas is a calling
Nov. 30, 2013 @ 06:08 PM

 Al Capehart is a walking encyclopedia of all things Santa.

He can give you the literary background, complete with rumors of family drama, of the famous poem "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," or rattle off the approximate birth and death dates of the historical St. Nicholas, or run through a quick primer of the Dutch-American colonial roots of Santa Claus — all off the top of his head.

After two decades of impersonating the jolly Christmas figure, it probably makes sense that Capehart — who goes by Santa Al when in costume — would be well versed on the lore of St. Nick. Now, he's offering up much of his knowledge, as well as insights, inspirational messages and personal anecdotes, in a book he wrote called "Behind Santa's Smile: Twenty Years as Santa Al."

Capehart is really two different people. One side of him has four college degrees, including a doctorate in psychology, is CEO of North Carolina Rail-Trails and has campaigned several times to become mayor of Pittsboro. The other side has been growing out a beard and dressing up as Santa since 1992, trying to spread the Christmas Spirit to children and adults all the while.

The Santa Al side of him is what his memoir is about, although it's the uncostumed Al Capehart will be at a reading and book signing in Pittsboro at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Chatham Community Library. Everyone is invited and welcome.

"You don't have to believe in Santa to come, but if you don't believe when you leave, Santa Al didn't do his job," Capehart said, laughing but then stopping himself and interjecting: "I mean, Ho ho ho."

His voicemail greeting also signs off with a hearty chorus of "Ho ho ho," and he's proud to say he spent more than a thousand dollars on his suit, not to mention the makeup he wears to make his cheeks a little rosier. But despite his love for and devotion to the hobby now, he said it wasn't something he ever really wanted to do — at least not until it actually happened.

Capehart, who is 75, said he started growing his beard in 1992 mainly out of laziness. A friend ventured that he could pass as Santa Claus, so he decided to give it a shot. He signed a deal for a one-time gig at a mall in Durham for a photo shoot, came home and thought nothing of it.

Nothing, at least, until he happened to see the newspaper a few days later and saw a photo of a small girl sitting on Santa's lap. His lap.

He's been fully committed ever since.

"I opened up the Durham Herald-Sun, and what did I see on the front page? I saw that little girl and Santa Al," he said. "I did not see Al Capehart. I heard a voice start calling to me. [Becoming Santa Al] was not something I chose; it was something that called me."

And much like a priest, teacher or other vocation that people often describe as a calling, Capehart said he thinks there's something that makes Santa impersonators like him passionate on a level that not everyone can match.

"I think there's a Santa Spirit," he said. "All the Santas I know feel like they've been called to this."

He would know, too. He started a group and a website called Triangle Santa Buddies in the early 2000s with Santa Dwight (Dwight Compton of Cedar Grove), which now has 30 Santas in the jolly brotherhood. Capehart said it has cut down on his stress and has also helped the local community by ensuring that someone can always find a Santa, even if the one they had in mind was booked.

For the last four years, he's been working on his latest project, his memoir. Capehart was one of the first people to enroll when Central Carolina Community College started a creative writing program, and he said he also mentored under local writer Majorie Hudson.

Hudson reviewed his book when it came out recently, calling it "a whirlwind sleigh ride into his world; the world of the working Santa. ... This little book will open your eyes and your heart, and put you in the Christmas spirit any time you read it."

The Rev. Dr. Wilberforce O. Mundia, rector at St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church in Pittsboro and professor of religion and philosophy at Shaw University, also gave the book a similarly warm review.

"He reminds us that the spirit of Christmas should be encouraged throughout the year — and not just at Christmas," Mundia writes.

And on, Chatham Community Library Branch Manager Jennifer Gillis gives the book four out of five stars and writes: "This book is as sweet as they come. If you're feeling jaded about Christmas, I highly recommend it — with a warm glass of milk and a plate of Christmas cookies! This Santa is as serious about spreading joy as he is about being Santa."

But Capehart says he would never claim to actually be Santa. He carries Santa Al business cards on him at all times, so that when children see him in street clothes and ask if he's Santa, he can give them the card — lighting up their eyes and imaginations — and tell them to be nice, but avoid the question.

"They're convinced they saw Santa Claus, but I never claim to be Santa Claus," Capehart said. "I'm Santa Al, and I do Santa services."


What: Reading and book signing, "Behind Santa's Smile: Twenty Years as Santa Al"

Who: Al Capehart, author and professional Santa

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Chatham Community Library, 197 N.C. Highway 87 N. in Pittsboro