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story.lead_photo.caption Stacy Peters, also known as “Santa Pete,” reads a copy of the Three Rivers Edition in his home in Little Rock. As Santa, Peters makes trips every year to the STARS Academy in Batesville, which serves special-needs children. ( Staci Vandagriff)

When Katie Mitchell took her kids to see Santa Claus six years ago, she was aggravated that the line seemed to take forever and the parking was almost nonexistent, but the icing on it all was the fact that she was expected to fork over several dollars for one photo.

She knew most families at her church couldn’t pay for a photo for such a precious holiday memory, but she then had an idea: Have her father play Santa.

That was six years ago, and her dad, Stacy Peters, has been known as “Santa Pete” ever since.

Peters well remembers the day his daughter came home from the mall, saying she was “incensed that it took so long.”

“She then said, ‘Daddy, why don’t you start growing your beard out?’ I’d had a beard forever but kept it close, maybe an inch. Of course, it’s gotten grayer over the years. She said, ‘Grow it out, and next year you can be Santa, and we can give pictures out to our neighbors.’

“Like a lot of people, I do what my daughter says,” he said with a chuckle.

The plan was for him to play Santa at their church, The Little Rock Church, a nondenominational congregation in southwest Little Rock with about 400 members, and then again at a fundraiser for The CALL, a foster-care agency.

One of the women who came to the church function told Peters, “You’re a beautiful Santa, and there’s a lot of demand for Santa at parties and open houses. You can make some money doing this.”

“She got me some gigs, and it’s turned into a big enterprise,” Peters said.

“My father was a minister, and everyone called him Pete. I had an older brother, and they called him Little Pete, and when I came along, they called me Repeat.

So after that first gig, the children at Peters’ church started calling him “Santa Pete.”

“They are just thrilled that Santa goes to their church,” Peters said, laughing.

“I’ve always loved children, and I’m an extrovert,” he said. “I love it, love it, love it — it’s so much fun.”

Peters, who will be 66 in February, joked that his wife, Kathy, occasionally tells him, “Remember, it’s not you they love” to keep Peters’ “ego in check.”

But playing Santa can be hard work, not to mention hot.

“The Santa suit is very hot, and I sweat gallons while I’m wearing it. Traveling around is hard work, but I don’t get tired of it or dread it. Each child brings their own energy, and you owe it to these children to be energetic and joyful. I would hate to be in a bad mood or if a child came away disappointed in Santa,” Peters said.

He said he keeps the longer Santa beard year-round because he’ll occasionally get calls for photo shoots and TV commercials.

“They do those in the offseason as often as not,” he said.

Even in the spring and summer, he’ll get calls for his other alter ego, “Golf Santa,” who usually wears knickers and a golf hat and carries around a bag of golf clubs.

“A charity held a golf tournament a couple years ago and asked me to come as Santa and play a round with each team,” Peters said.

He made pictures with each team, and as the photos circulated on social media, other people called him and asked if he could come to their child’s birthday party or other event.

He said he enjoys Golf Santa because he doesn’t have to wear the heavy red-and-white suit.

“I’m not a fat person, so I have to wear a fat suit to be the character,” and that makes the Santa suit that much hotter. Peters said he’s tried using ice packs underneath the suit, but they melt fairly quickly, thus adding more bulk.

But it’s worth it to see the smiles on the children’s faces, he said. He makes trips every year to the STARS Academy in Batesville, which serves special-needs children, and he also comes to Citizens Bank each year.

“It’s a steady flow of children for three hours. The line is outside into the parking lot sometimes,” Peters said.

Peters has seven grandchildren, one of whom has Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism, and their church has children with Down syndrome and other special needs. He said he understands those children who have sensory issues.

“They don’t want Santa to be loud. Some kids want Santa to be boisterously loud and hug them, but some kids don’t want that. I know how to be still around them,” Peters said. “Many of them like to rub the fur on my coat. They don’t necessarily want me to touch them with my hands.”

He said some children are nonverbal, so they don’t speak, but they show excitement by squealing or jumping or moving around.

“That just warms my heart; I just love those kids,” he said.

“Those children can’t go to Bass Pro or the malls or big events — it’s just too much stimulation with them,” he continued, so this way, Santa can come to them in a quiet setting. “I don’t know how many moms and dads have stood there with tears in their eyes because they’ve never been able to do that before. It’s a treasure for them.”

Santa isn’t just for children, either, he said.

He recalled at one event that he saw a group of women come in the door and get in line to see him. When it was finally their turn, they told him they were five generations of women, and the matriarch of the family perched on his knee.

“I asked, ‘When was the last time you sat on Santa’s knee?’ and she said, ‘It was in 1927. My dad took me to Memphis to see Santa, and I was 7 years old.’

“That was in 2017, and she was 97, so I tell teenagers and others — you’re never too old to sit on Santa’s knee,” Peters said.

It’s a big change from the little boy who never had his own visit from Santa when he was little.

“My parents did not want us to believe in Santa Claus,” Peters said. “I was a little jealous of the other kids because they enjoyed talking about Santa, and I missed out on that.”

In college, when he started dating his future wife, Kathy, she insisted that Peters agree that they would let their children believe in Santa, and he consented.

“I had always thought it’s OK for children to believe in Santa,” Peters said, adding that he does not hold anything against his parents for not letting him believe in the man in red: “My mother’s 94 years old, and we’re still very close.”

Peters said Thanksgiving used to be his favorite holiday.

“There’s no pressure, no gifts — it’s pure family time and a time to thank God for blessing you,” he said.

But now, he said, he sort of misses Thanksgiving. He starts playing Santa at events the first weekend in November, when he’s sitting for photos with children for Christmas cards, and continues through the end of the year, even on Saturdays and Sundays.

“Most days, I’ll have four or five appearances. … I’ll take a vacation from my work in December, and I’ll go from 6 in the morning to 6 at night a number of days,” said Peters, who is a circulation manager for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Peters said he has about 30 years with the paper and will retire next year, after which he plans to do some volunteer work.

“I have a special place in my heart for the hospice ministry, and almost every hospice company has chaplains,” he said as he ticked off plans for retirement. “I enjoy woodworking. I’ve got seven grandchildren I want to spend more time with. My wife is a retired school teacher, so we’ll do some traveling — I’m really looking forward to it.

“I have very much enjoyed serving as a Santa, and I look forward to doing that for many years to come.”

Santa Pete will be at Citizens Bank in Batesville from 2-5 p.m. Wednesday at the bank’s new headquarters, 655 St. Louis St. Photos with Santa are free.

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