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Here Comes Santa Claus

A former sailor now spends his days spreading holiday joy to sick children

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This story originally ran in December 2015.

Originally from Connecticut, Bob Hargraves lived all over the world during his 20-year career in the Navy. After another two decades working for companies like Harris Teeter, he recently retired. Bob’s lived in the area since 1994 and for the past decade, he’s been suiting up in red (and sometimes Carolina blue) as Santa Claus for events at locations like UNC Hospitals. We asked him to spill on Santa Claus School, causes close to his heart and his own Mrs. Claus.

Santa Bob
Norah Headley, 4, shares her wish list with Santa Bob at a fundraiser for the Lung Cancer Initiative of North Carolina. Photo by Briana Brough

How did you get started as Santa Claus?

The very first time I portrayed Santa was in Australia [when I was in the Navy] in 1977. I never thought it would play a major role later on in my life.

I have been portraying Santa full time since 2005. I was working for Harris Teeter at the time as a customer service manager and occasionally ran a cash register. I overheard the customers’ children whispering to their parents that I looked liked Santa. I would return home from work thinking about it, smiling all the way. I casually mentioned it to my wife [Tomma Hargraves], who then took it upon herself to look for Santa schools without my knowledge. She found [the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School] and said I should go. The rest is history, and I have enjoyed every moment.

What was Santa Claus School like?

When I attended the school, I had no idea what to expect, what to wear and things like that. When I arrived, [journalist] Bill Weir was there with a crew to film the school the entire three days. The first day of class I arrived dressed in a yellow polo shirt because I owned nothing in red. The film crew told us the film would be edited and a portion of it would be shown on ABC on Christmas morning. When I returned to work, many of the customers I knew at Harris Teeter asked me if I was on television that day. They had recognized me because I was the only Santa in the picture in yellow. I can assure you that I now own many clothing items related to Santa that are red.

What was the biggest takeaway from Santa Claus School?

It’s what is in your heart, not how you look, that matters.

What drives you to give back?

By Santa standards, I am a youngster because I have only been doing this for 10 years. When I started, I didn’t make that much money and began to seriously think about why I was given the gift of portraying Santa. It’s an honor that must be taken very seriously. Therefore, within two years, I realized that if I was going to successfully portray Santa, I was going about it the wrong way. The Lung Cancer Initiative of North Carolina is the closest to my heart. Each year the amount of money raised at each venue is given to this group to distribute for research grants to universities within North Carolina.

I never would have started volunteering at the hospital if not for my wife’s cancer. She was diagnosed in November 2006 and underwent treatment for close to a year, enduring both chemotherapy and radiation. Once it was determined she was in remission, I surprised her by telling her I was going to volunteer at the pediatric oncology unit at UNC. I needed to do something to thank UNC Hospitals for saving my wife’s life.

How much is involved in getting ready for an event?

I usually groom myself because my beard and hair are natural. Then I go about the process of getting dressed. It entails putting on a cool vest that contains synthetic ice and allows me to remain cool for at least three hours while working. It probably takes about an hour from start to finish for grooming and putting on the suit for each event that I have scheduled. Nothing should look out of place when representing the jolly old man.

What’s a typical season as Santa like?

My season usually starts in mid-November and has started as early as mid-October. I don’t work in a mall, so the season can vary from year to year. Last year I had 28 appearances during the month of December. I also had fundraising appearances in November for the Lung Cancer Initiative of North Carolina. This year I am appearing at six fundraisers for this organization. Additionally, I have an event for Habitat for Humanity of Wake County, one week at UNC Pediatric Oncology and a few others. I also have a number of jobs for which I am compensated. There are days where I participate in two or more events, often putting hundreds of miles on my sleigh, aka Santa’s truck.

What do your family members think of you as Santa?

My wife thinks it’s great, even though she doesn’t have much of a social life during December because I’m portraying Santa so much. Most of my grandchildren are grown but still feel it’s cool that Grampa plays Santa. They always introduce me to their friends as Grampa/Santa.

Do you ever miss being Santa at other points in the year?

I actually do Christmas in July at the UNC Pediatric Oncology department. That’s my fix for the summer.

What’s your favorite part of being Santa?

Seeing the young kids’ eyes light up and the excitement it brings to them and me.

Can you share a particularly memorable moment with us?

The first year I portrayed Santa, a young man I met at a charity event asked for a reindeer bell. I still had a number of events to attend and had requested his mother or father meet me at Harris Teeter a few days before Christmas. My original intent was to ask the parents to reimburse me for the bells. However, the more I thought about it, I realized that wouldn’t be right. When the father arrived, I gave him the bells.

The following year that same young man came through the door, saw me and began running and then jumped into my arms. I was smiling from ear to ear because of how happy I had made this young child. The bells were the only thing he had on his Christmas list that year.

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Jessica is the Executive Editor for Chapel Hill Magazine. As a 2010 grad of UNC, she's happy to be back in town writing, editing and eating around the Triangle.