December 2018
Homeplace & Community

Santa Claus is Coming to Town

Bringing joy to every girl and boy has been a mission for this kind-hearted helper.

 

Michael Rotton has worked as Santa for 39 years. His career began quite by accident when a friend asked him to fill in for someone who had cancelled at the last minute.

December is a magical time of year, especially for Michael Rotton. He already has a special twinkle in his eye, because Christmas is right around the corner. You see, Rotton is one of Santa’s special helpers, and he has been donning his red suit, picking up his bag of treats and bringing "joy to every girl and boy" for the last 39 years. 

Rotton is well-known in Southwest Alabama for playing Santa Claus. For years, he has made stops at private parties, family get-togethers, schools, churches, nursing homes, retirement centers and hospitals. Perhaps he is most loved, however, for journeying along the less-traveled back roads and byways of rural Clarke, Choctaw and Marengo counties, taking Santa to those less fortunate, those with special needs or those often forgotten. It was here that this kindhearted Santa brought an indescribable gift.

From the start, Rotton learned one thing about his role: Santa has a very special effect on everybody. Years ago, while heading to an appearance at a rural church, he realized he had forgotten to buy candy canes. He and his wife, Beverly, who was dressed as Mrs. Claus, darted into the Thomasville Walmart. Instantly, children surrounded them, hugging, laughing, waving and telling Santa what they wanted for Christmas. Parents also came with their cameras, while curious older shoppers ambled up to watch. Before he knew it, a small crowd had gathered, and children were lined up for pictures with Mr. & Mrs. Santa.

During “Pictures with Santa,” Alecia McIntyre sat on her grandfather’s knee and assured him that she has been good. Michael and Beverly Rotton’s granddaughter is in kindergarten at TES.

 
   

"I kept saying, ’Ole Santa has got to go! Old Santa has another group of children waiting on him!’ he chuckled. "Beverly and I kept moving closer to the door, but they just followed us. I thought we’d never get away!"

Michael Rotton started his job as Santa quite by accident. While he worked at Scotch Lumber Company in Fulton, one of his co-workers asked him to fill in at a family Christmas party, because the previous Santa had canceled at the last minute. Rotton had no suit or any idea where he could even get one, but the friend borrowed one from a local church. This event was so much fun that, later, Rotton bought his own suit and began his long and rewarding career as Santa.

Rotton tells many interesting stories about his unusual adventures through the years. On one occasion, he donned his red suit in May and showed up at a graduation party to pass out gifts to graduates. He even appeared one Halloween at a Ghost Walk!

At a children’s party in Coffeeville, one skeptical youngster confidently stepped up and told his little sister that "this was not the real Santa." Rotton unbuttoned his coat to show his round belly.

"That boy’s eyes got as big as a fifty-cent piece!" he laughed. "He thought I had a pillow under my coat. He pulled my beard (which was real), looked at his little sister and said, ‘This really is Santa!’ I’ll never forget the look on their faces as they stood there!"

Rotton has had some scary moments, too. Years ago, a co-worker’s wife called and asked him to make a surprise visit to give out gifts. Rotten parked at the bottom of the hill, so the kids could not spot him. As he started his trek up to the house, he heard gunshots. Suddenly, birdshot rained down on him. Terrified, he ran to his car and left. Shortly thereafter, the husband called to apologize. His wife had forgotten to tell him that Santa would be coming! It seems the homeowner had been having trouble with people parking at the bottom of the hill and engaging in some questionable behavior. Hoping to scare them away, the man had shot into the air. This incident became the talk of the town! A few days later, the Thomasville Times came out with the headline, "Man shoots at early Santa!" Rotton still has that paper! Even though he laughs about it now, he admitted that he had never been so terrified. 

Besides almost being shot, Rotton has also encountered other job hazards. At one home, he knocked, and just as the excited children opened their door, Rotton felt something latch onto the back of his leg. He immediately yelled, "Ho! Ho! Ho! Help old Santa!" The owner grabbed the dog and pulled him off Rotton’s leg. Fortunately, this old dog had no teeth, so he did very little damage. After that, Rotten said he watched dogs very carefully when he made his visits.

 

Beverly Rotton, center and Felicia McIntyre, right, often help Santa at parties and Christmas events. McIntyre is Rotton’s older daughter.

Rotton has probably heard more requests and read more wish lists than anyone could imagine. Some requests were heart-wrenching, involving family issues that Rotton could not change. Others were more lighthearted, like the child who asked Santa to "cut a rug" with her. Rotton complied, but then all the other children wanted to dance with jolly old St. Nick. Rotton said that he got so hot and tired that he thought he might pass out. Fortunately, he was able to convince the kids to sit down and sing with Santa. With his deep, baritone voice, Rotton belted out "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer." The children immediately joined in, impressed that Santa could sing. Their parents sang along, too, giving Rotton a much-needed rest.

Rotton has had many other "jobs" as Santa. One of his fondest memories was serving as Santa for the Thomasville Lions Club. Each year, the Lions sponsored a Christmas fundraiser to buy glasses for needy children. The members built an elaborate, seasonal set in Walmart, and for a nominal fee, kids could have their pictures taken with Santa. Beverly Rotton joined her husband to help as Mrs. Claus, and his daughter, Felicia, helped as an elf.

He once was hired to stand in front of a store on Highway 43, waving and inviting customers inside. His favorite job, however, was one for Blue Bell Ice Cream. He walked around a local grocery store, handing out coupons for ice cream. He could hardly move through the store, however, because kids were hugging him, and parents were snapping pictures. He said that his reward was lots of free Blue Bell Ice Cream for his own children.

Working in schools has always been a special treat for Rotton. In 2017, he felt well enough to help Thomasville Elementary School with a fundraiser for the Salvation Army. Children paid $5 to have a picture with Santa, and the money then went to the Red Kettle Campaign. The project was a big success, but for Rotten, it was just one more special time to make children happy!

Rotton has also had his share of crying babies and overzealous parents, but he just chuckled and took it all in stride. He recalled that as a child, he, too, was sometimes afraid of Santa, but he soon learned the jolly old man had a very big heart. That’s what Rotton has brought to his role as Santa: a humble, compassionate spirit with a warm heart for children. 

Through the years, Rotton has faced many personal challenges. He and his wife Beverly have devoted their lives to their three children, who are now grown. Health issues have also plagued Rotton. A few years ago, he suffered three heart attacks, which required eight different procedures to place stents in his arteries. He has also had major problems with diabetes. His doctors advised him to retire years ago, but since then, he has had to slow down even more. His poor health has prevented him from making as many appearances as he would have liked.

Still, as Christmas draws near, Rotton feels a deep longing to put on his red suit and make spirits bright. Rotton said he could never express what playing Santa had meant to him all these years. 

"Seeing kids’ faces light up warms my heart," he explained, with just a hint of a tear in his eye. "I never promised a child anything, because I didn’t know the parents’ situations. Instead, I just asked them to be good, and I told them that Santa would see what he could do!"

This kind-hearted man often worries that there may be children who do not get any toys this Christmas.

"I wish I could make sure everybody got something for Christmas!’" he said softly. "I wish I could really bring gifts and joy to everybody!"

You have, Santa, in ways you could never imagine!

 

Carolyn Drinkard is a freelance writer from Thomasville. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..