words: Marla Cantrell images: Catherine Frederick
It has been a long time since Charlie Moffett first donned his Santa suit and listened as children, dressed in their holiday best, told him what they wanted for Christmas. In fact, it was during the last century, way back in the 1990s. But even that long ago his wife Jeri was at his side, dressed in her bright red dress, a basket of candy canes at her side, quick with laughter that was equally as cheerful as her husband’s Ho-Ho-Ho.
“She’s just perfect,” Charlie says, and then he pats Jeri’s hand. “Sometimes the really little kids are afraid of Santa.” He touches his chin. “This big beard is a lot to take in. If that happens they’ll go to Jeri instead, they’ll go sit on Mrs. Claus’ lap. She’s just wonderful.”
Jeri’s smile is brighter than any Christmas star. “I can’t tell you how much joy it brings us,” she says. “There is nothing as sweet as these little children. One boy poked Charlie’s tummy, and his eyes got big and then he said, ‘It’s real. You are Santa!’ Well, that just made us laugh so much.”
Charlie takes off his Santa hat and sets it down on an end table in the living room of the couple’s Fort Smith, Arkansas home. The house, well over a century old, with gingerbread trim and touches of stain glass, fits the Moffetts perfectly. Jeri points to a spot in the entryway. “That’s where we’ll put the tree, right where you can see it when you come in. Oh, how we do love Christmas!” Jeri says. “And I know how lucky I am, because not just any man would put on a Santa suit and volunteer the way Charlie does. Sometimes he’ll tell people I get him into a lot of things. He’ll say, ‘She’s my Lucy Ricardo. I never know what to expect.’”
Jeri tugs at the Santa-face necklace she’s wearing. It was a gift from a dear friend, years ago, and every Christmas season she wears it. “I’ve had such wonderful friends in my life,” she says. There is something about the way she speaks. She’ll call you sweetheart. She’ll call you kid. She’ll ask you again and again if there’s anything she can get you. The offerings get sweeter and sweeter, until finally she suggests a root beer float, and you realize there’s nothing in the world you could ever want more.
Within minutes of meeting the Moffetts, it’s hard not to see them as Mr. and Mrs. Claus. They laugh regularly. They talk about their visits to nursing homes, to veterans hospitals, and how the joy of Christmas unites all of us, no matter how old we get.
They have no website, no Facebook page, nothing that makes them easy to find. But year after year, through word of mouth, organizations find them and ask them to visit. They attend the Fort Smith Junior League’s Holiday Market in November, and they show up at various churches, schools, office parties, even big family gatherings.
Some of what they’ve seen touches them deeply, like the year they visited a children’s shelter and passed out presents. The older folks in nursing homes whose eyes grow bright, remembering the Christmases of their childhood, reinforce the couple’s belief that what they do matters, that it brings happiness at a time when we’re all looking for just that.
The Moffetts repeatedly have their faith in humanity strengthened. Charlie says, “When we walk in the kids will just holler. Sometimes it sounds like the house is going to come down. I’ve had a kid that left me a letter with a dollar bill in it for Santa. I had one boy who told me he didn’t want anything for himself for Christmas, he just wanted me to heal his baby brother. Talk about the meaning of Christmas, that little boy had it. He had the biggest heart.”
Seeing the children, dressed in red and green, alight in the anticipation of the holiday, is always one of the highlights of the Moffetts’ year. What they’ve noticed is that kids don’t tend to ask for outrageous gifts. For a while, the Dora doll was a top contender, and Barbie dolls are still in the running. Fire trucks and dump trucks make the lists, and anything that’s connected with a popular movie shows up.
Charlie and Jeri have been in the Santa business so long, they’ve seen a few kids grow up. “We just love it when moms bring up their little babies and have their pictures made with us,” Jeri says. “A lot of kids we’ll see year after year. You just love them, you just do! And it’s not only little kids. We were at a party last year and a lot of the teenagers came and talked to Santa and had their picture made with him. It’s not called the most wonderful time of the year for nothing!”
Their reputation has grown so much, they’ve begun to get out-of-the-ordinary requests, such as the time they were asked to show up as Mr. and Mrs. Claus at a wedding. “We were in the wedding pictures,” Charlie says. “It was so much fun. Doing this gives us so much. We’ll come home and be energized, and we’ll stay up talking about something cute someone said, or the look on a child’s face. It just brings the best out in everybody, no matter what your age.”
“You learn new things about each other, too,” Jeri says, and then laughs. “We were at a party last year and I looked up and there was Charlie out on the dance floor, doing the ‘Y.M.C.A.’ Now that’s something you don’t see very often. Santa on the dance floor! I stopped, put my hands on my hips, and watched him. I was thinking, He sure is cute!” Each time they leave an event, they end by singing “Jingle Bells.” Inevitably, all those in attendance will join in, their voices rising. The song, like the Moffetts, makes the crowd happy, and Jeri believes singing together is just another way to show love.
She reaches out and pats Charlie’s hand. It is such a grand life, and one she’s never taken for granted. As a survivor of ovarian cancer, she’s been keenly aware of what a gift each day is. She takes off her glasses, she rubs her eyes, and then she says, “I’ll tell you what a great man Charlie’s been to me. I had a second cancer scare one time. The nurse had called and left a message on our phone for me to come in right away for more tests. I was lying on that table in the doctor’s office, and I was thinking, This can’t be happening. And then the door opened, and I thought it was the doctor, but it was Charlie. He’d come home and played the message and he’d rushed out of the house to find me, to make sure I was all right.”
Charlie is holding Jeri’s hand in a way that suggests he might never let it go. “She was fine, though. It was just a false alarm.”
In the background, classical music is playing. Light streams through the high windows, surrounding Mr. and Mrs. Claus in a circle of sun. Tears rise to the surface of Jeri’s eyes, and she says, “Isn’t he just the greatest?” Before you have a chance to answer, you realize it’s one of those questions that doesn’t need an answer at all. Everything you need to know is sitting right in front of you.
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