Season belongs to children -- and the man they believe in Santa: Columbia's George Hipple knows that the kid-Claus relationship is all-important. So, go ahead -- get your fingers tangled in his beard.

Catching Up With ...

December 15, 1996|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,SUN STAFF

It's opening day for Santa Claus, and the line to see him is already snaking around Santaland at the Mall in Columbia. Santa Claus, also known as George Hipple, doesn't sweat the crowd of fidgeting little ones, because he's been through this before. Right now, Santa only has eyes for one person, and that's the dark-haired little boy who is perched on his lap.

For all the bustling going on around him -- parents tugging kids, kids tugging parents, teen-agers munching french fries and senior citizens walking the mall -- Santa is the picture of serenity. Or perhaps he's the picture of a man who has had this gig for 11 years and knows that what's important is the relationship between kid and Claus.

"I think children are beautiful and the most precious things in this world," Santa says. "And, you know, you cannot hide anything from children. They always know how you really feel about them." From the day after Thanksgiving until Christmas, Hipple dons the familiar red suit and assumes his position on the lower level of the mall, outside Hecht's.

He will spend six or seven hours a day in his massive armchair with time off for lunch, six days a week from Monday through Saturday. "I like to go to church on Sunday, and I do love my football!" Hipple says, explaining his one day off.

Joys of the job

As if Santa owes us an explanation. We think not. After all, he's Santa. The bearer of glad tidings and good gifts. And Santa will tell you in the most sincere of tones -- he really means it -- that he loves every moment. It shows in the joyous ways he greets each child.

He loves it even when his smallest visitors reach out and entangle their hands in his flowing beard. He does his best to win over kids who cry and holler and wail their heads off because they want no part of this weird scene, even though Mommy and Daddy are grinning madly and acting as though this is a good thing.

In fact, Santa Claus has some of his best memories from these precious moments.

"The best picture we ever took was when this baby grabbed my beard. Her fingers were totally entwined in it. Then she pulled my head all the way down! I mean the look on that baby's face and then the look on my face!" Santa says, recalling the incident of a few years ago.

The Santa job came to Hipple instead of the other way around.

He weighed 245 pounds when he first got noticed, although he has slimmed down considerably. "My wife and I had been walking for exercise," he says. "When it started to get cold out, we decided to walk in the mall."

That October 11 years ago, Hipple was taking his mall walk as usual when, he says, "This girl came up to me and said, 'I want you to be our Santa Claus!' " And a Santa was born.

Actually, it wasn't his first time donning a Santa suit. He had volunteered to play Santa Claus at a few other events.

However, the woman who tapped him for the mall Santa didn't know his background. "Later on, I asked her how she knew I could be a Santa Claus. She told me it was the twinkle in my eye. Well, I went to a mirror and looked at my eyes!" Hipple, now 73, swears he cannot see the twinkle, but it doesn't matter as long as others do.

The mall management did have one request. They wanted him to grow a beard.

"I had never grown a beard, and I didn't know how it would turn out. Well, it turned out white!" Hipple says.

Hipple never went to Santa school. Didn't need to. Being Santa came naturally to him. When children ask if he's the real Santa, he replies: "You are the only one who can tell me that. Then they reach up and pull on my beard, and they are happy."

Patter of little feet

And what about the reindeer, Santa? Hipple always points to a huge light fixture over his chair and says, "I have a special place for the reindeer. You can't see them, but they are up there. If it is real quiet in here, you can hear the pitter-patter of their feet."

The kids love it.

Throughout his many seasons as Santa, Hipple has seen toys come and go.

"When I first started, Pound Puppies were popular, and those are terrific toys," recalls Hipple, who says he favors cuddly playthings. "G.I. Joes were popular. And, of course, Barbies or anything to do with Barbies were popular and still are popular." Hipple wishes Santa had had the foresight to purchase a little stock in Mattel, the company that makes Barbie.

"And then, a couple of years ago, it was Power Rangers," he says. "Now, it's that Nintendo 64."

A good laugh

Hipple is pleased to see another toy at the top of the wish list with the young set.

"It's that Laughing Elmo," he says. (Actually, Santa, the correct name is "Tickle Me Elmo," but if you want to call it "Laughing Elmo," fine.)

When Hipple took his post this year, child after child sat on his lap and asked for Elmo, a toy that Hipple hadn't even seen.

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