LINCOLNTON — Rich Rice was standing in line at a Maiden Food Lion nearly two years ago when he received the invitation to attend Santa school.
His friend and Santa mentor, Cliff Snider, also known as “Cliff Kringle,” called Rice about the opportunity.
Snider has not only authored books but has been featured on the pages of various popular publications and interviewed on television shows such as The 700 Club.
Snider told Rice he fit the Santa criteria perfectly.
While the Lincoln County man had already been dressing the part for years while visiting daycares, churches, nursing homes and assisted living facilities —particularly falling in love with the child-like hearts of the elderly generation — he had never before attended a real Santa get-together or even knew such a thing existed, he said.
Over a two-day period in Greensboro, he and 18 other Santa copies learned the ins and outs of the merry trade, all contained in the instructional book “Behind the Red Suit: The Business of Santa Claus.”
The book contains the history, character and image of Santa along with how to converse with children and start a home-based Santa business.
Rice said everyone who completes their first school session receives a bachelors degree in Santatology, and with each consecutive enrollment, masters and doctorate degree titles.
Rice has only attended the school once and doesn’t really feel the need to attend additional times.
“You either got it or you don’t,” he said.
Originally from Ohio, Rice moved to the area following Hurricane Hugo. He said his job at the time required he re-hang and install downed cable lines destroyed by the storm.
His wife Sharon, former assistant director of Heath House, was the one who actually encouraged him to become Santa roughly 13 years ago.
“It’s my wife’s fault,” he said jokingly. “Once it gets in your blood, you want to see more and more.”
Rice’s background is in construction work and truck driving, but due to an eye problem, was forced to take another career path.
During a sit-down interview with the Times-News, Rice offered his story and testimony.
In pure Santa fashion, he donned glasses, a white beard and buttoned-down dress shirt along with suspenders and three pieces of jewelry significant to his cause.
Along with a cross necklace, he wore a “naughty or nice” watch on his wrist, a replica from one of actor Tim Allen’s popular “Santa Clause” movies, and on his finger, his father’s former Masonic ring, melted down and transformed into a green and red holiday piece decorated with a gold cross and the letters “S’’ and “C’’ on the sides.
While some have criticized Rice for taking his holiday role a little too far, often seen wearing a full red dress suit or other Christmas-related clothing throughout town, he sees no problem with celebrating the season year round.
Because for the 54-year-old, the opportunity to use his Santa character to bring smiles to people’s faces is part of his passion and calling to spread the Christian faith, “giving God all the glory,” he said.
He said he prayed God would allow him to meet as many people as possible while portraying Santa so that through him, the world would continually be reminded of the true spirit of Christmas — the birth of Jesus.
“I really do feel like a disciple in a red suit,” he said. “I think celebrating the birth of Christ every day is a wonderful day. Look at what Christmas does to everyone. Everyone’s so jolly and happy.”
Rice refers to everyone he encounters — both young and old — as “kids.”
“I’ll bring the kid out in you,” he said.
He recalled meeting one of his oldest customers, 101, and youngest to date — just three days old.
“There’s no difference between the two’s eyes,” he said.
Oftentimes, Rice is faced with difficult and heartbreaking requests from children who don’t understand Santa’s limitations.
“I’ve got story after story after story,” he said. “If had gotten paid a dollar per tear last year, I could have retired three times over.”
Rice particularly described the striking transformation his presence had on a young leukemia patient, bald from treatments.
Her grandmother told him the girl had always been fearful of the red-suited man. However, for Rice, she smiled.
Another young girl asked him for a letter from her father in Heaven.
Unsure how to answer, Rice said he prayed the Spirit would give him the right words.
He eventually told the girl that while Santa couldn’t bring her a letter, she had all of her father’s love and memories inside her heart.
“It wears on your emotions,” Rice said. “A child will come in that really needs comfort.and will empty half your cup. It takes so much out of you, but the next kid in line fills that cup back up because he’s so happy.”
One of his favorite stories to share also happened last year just before a scheduled break from Santa duties at a New Jersey mall.
A family with two young boys had piled in to see Rice just as he was leaving his giant Santa chair, but he took the time to see them.
As soon as the children began belting out the popular Christian spiritual song “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” his heart melted.
Standing nearby watching their boys, the parents told Rice the young pair had been practicing the tune especially for him.
“Those two little kids took me back to reality,” he said.
From a bologna sandwich to heat during the winter months, children have asked Santa for it all, Rice said.
One more light-hearted request came from a young child who asked Santa to bring her favorite teacher down her chimney on Christmas morning.
Rice chuckled as he reflected on the girl’s unique request.
“She said, ‘It’d be real easy,’” he said. “’Just go down her chimney and bring her to my house and put her down my chimney.’ I told her that was kidnapping, and instead, she should call her teacher for Christmas because she needs to stay with her own family.”
Rice has returned to New Jersey’s Paramus Park Mall for the second year, prepared to meet an eager crowd close in size to that of last year’s — 22,000.
Of that total, Rice specifically saw more than 3,000 first-year Christmas babies and more than 700 special needs children.
He said he was hired through WorldWide Photography, a company serving more than 300 malls nationwide, to fill the role of mall Santa following the Northeast’s devastation from Hurricane Sandy last October.
At the time, residents needed to hear words of hope and joy, and as both Santa and a Christian, Rice knew he was someone fit for the challenge.
Not only does he listen to Christmas music every morning, he said, but he also prays that God will give him knowledge and wisdom when talking to others.
He considered the mall opportunity an answer to his prayer to meet and encourage an unprecedented number of people. More than that, he saw the opportunity as evidence of God’s promise to never a close a door without opening an even larger one.
A year earlier, Rice had stepped down as Lincolnton’s town Santa. Now, he was meeting a much larger crowd of people stemming from places all over the world.
“It’s not about Rich,” he said. “It’s about God. I’m just a puppet for Him.”
Rice even provided elves for the “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” holiday special filmed in Lincolnton in 2011.
He noted he had seen the crew working in the area that year and asked if they needed a Santa for the show. Producers took him up on his offer.
He believes the mall to be one of his primary mission fields since he daily engages with people of numerous races and religions.
Last year, a Jewish man personally thanked him for his Santa role.
“He said, ‘I’m Jewish, but I appreciate what you do with the kids,’” Rice said.
In addition to children and parents, Rice has had an impact on the mall’s Security Supervisor Kurt Sidorak. The two even spent a day together with their wives taking in the sites and sounds of New York City, Rice said.
Sidorak later recorded his thoughts and holiday memories on Rice’s special voice recorder he keeps with him for remembering so-called magical moments throughout the season.
He hopes to one day write them all down and publish a book.
Rice also looks forward to the possibility of additional Santa opportunities stemming from a commercial he filmed this month with Canadian-based advertising agency Technekes.
Shot in Charlotte, the commercial also features the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy.
While producers initially contacted his good friend Snider for the role, the fellow Santa told them he couldn’t do it and to call Rice.
The commercial will be sent to the ad agency’s various clients for the purpose of boosting holiday sales.
With all the success Rice has achieved in recent years, he remains humble, giving little to no credit to himself.
“If it wasn’t for God and Cliff,” he said, “I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
For more information on Rice, visit him on Facebook under “Santa Rich Rice.”