By Argen Duncan: PNT senior writer
Every year around Christmas, Santa’s helpers appear around Portales, handing out gifts and making children smile.
And it’s Roosevelt County men who are under those red suits, hats and beards.
Roosevelt County farmer and rancher Matt Rush and C&S Dairy Supply employee Mark Clark are two of the local men behind St. Nicholas.
“I enjoy watching the kids get so excited,” said Rush, now in his sixth year as Santa.
The job has taught him Christmas really is about the children, he said.
Clark said it’s the season of giving. Playing Santa is his way to do that. He doesn’t request money, but Dairi Concepts offered him payment and a family may give him a few dollars and a plate of cookies for his work.
Clark first became Kris Kringle 22 years ago, when he visited Junior Gresham’s family in Dora on the invitation of Gresham and his wife.
“And it went on from there,” Clark said.
Since then, he has played Santa at family and company parties and for the Mayor’s Christmas Tree toy drive. He said he’s given away gifts as exotic as a diamond ring and a Cadillac on behalf of the recipient’s family.
Clark estimates that it was five or six years before his own children recognized his voice and face behind the makeup. Now, at ages 8 and 11, they play along and tell the other children he really is Santa.
Still, some children recognize him and call him Santa even without the suit.
Rush stepped into a Santa suit when a childhood acquaintance and Altrusa member Micah Thompson persuaded him to play the jolly old elf at Reading Is Fundamental parties around the county.
Wearing a Santa suit borrowed from Donita Privett of Times Remembered Photography, he appears two or three times a year and annually poses with his niece and three nephews for Christmas photos.
Last year, Rush said, his sister asked her then 3-year-old son, Jarett, who brought him his Christmas presents. The boy replied that his uncle had, but his mother told him it was Santa.
Clark said he often suggests something, maybe something silly, when children tell him they don’t know what they want for Christmas.
During a recent Christmas party, he suggested wanting a horse to a co-worker’s 3-year-old son. Now the boy is asking his mother for one.
“So she’s kind of perturbed at me about that,” he said.
Rush said he visited his mother’s Dora third-grade class as Santa one year and told one of the students, Dalton Privett, he knew who the boy’s parents were. When Rush named them, Dalton turned to the child sitting next to him and said, “Whoa. This is getting weird.”
Clark recalls another time when he was pulled over while in his Santa suit. Because the suit has no pockets, he didn’t have his identification.
The deputy spoke with him, figured out who he was and let him go with a warning to slow down.
Clark still remembers the surprised “holy cow” look on the deputy’s face when he first looked into the vehicle.
“Everyone believes in Santa a little bit somewhere,” Clark said. “They have to.”