He whipped out his International Driver’s License. Birthdate: 12-25-00. Hair: White. Weight: 280. Eyes: Sparkle. Address: 1 Sleighbell Way, Santa’s Village, North Pole. Expiration: NEVER. Kris Kringle, a.k.a. Santa Claus, will be driving through Owensboro this holiday season in Limos by Knight—his family’s business for the past 15 years.
Tom Burton could double for Santa any day of the week, with or without the red suit. His snow white hair and beard complement his crystal blue eyes and rosy cheeks. His wife, Pat, confided that his nose even gets kind of red, too. She affectionately recalled that a little girl once approached Tom after a basketball game shortly after Christmas and said, “Santa, thank you. I got everything I asked for!” Tom was dressed in his regular street clothes, but his Santa persona was fully intact, no pretense needed.
He’s accustomed to drawing attention and a crowd throughout the year. “The kids at our church think that Santa goes to Settle Memorial,” Pat said. “I used to sing in the choir, and you’d see the little kids pointing and whispering, ‘There’s Santa. There’s Santa,’” Tom said with great amusement. Santa is the feature at Settle’s pre-school Breakfast with Santa. Their son, B.J., interjected, “A little girl at church comes to give Santa a hug each Sunday, regardless of the season.”
With his natural resemblance to Santa, a simple combing of his thick white hair and beard is all that’s needed prior to donning his red suit (which has a little extra padding), red suspenders, gold-rimmed glasses and signature red hat, trimmed in white fur. “You’d be surprised how many honks I get and kids waving to me,” said Tom, describing what it’s like to drive through town, en route to his Santa appearances.
Tom chuckled as he said that reservations for Santa begin in June. This prompted Pat to hold up a thick binder, the Santa Book, which details each of Santa’s appointments this season that began as early as the Saturday before Thanksgiving and run through Christmas Eve. Some days, he has multiple appointments. This year he will be Santa for the Holiday Stroll; two Breakfasts with Santa; the Owensboro Symphony Concert (Dec. 13); Mothers of Multiples; Independence Bank; the Lions Club; Hilliard Lyons; Beef O’Brady’s; the Boys and Girls Club auction; and Brunch with Santa at the Owensboro Country Club—in addition to multiple home visits, corporate and private parties. His rate is a flat $50 per hour, except for churches and schools, which he visits at no charge. “We sing some songs (like “Rudolph” and “Jingle Bells”), and I usually read The Night Before Christmas to them. Parents or grandparents will have some presents sitting out on the porch, so I’ll take those in to give to the kids,” Tom said. What a fun job! More chuckles and full agreement from Santa: “It is fun.”
It all started in 1988 with the Owensboro Breakfast Lions Club asking Tom to be Santa on their float for the Christmas Parade, giving Tom his first Santa suit and beard. “When the first little child came up to me, I picked her up and she said, ‘Oh, that’s such a pretty beard,’ grabbed hold of it and pulled it off of me. So I decided right then, if I was going to be Santa next year, they weren’t going to be able to pull my beard off,” Tom said. He was Santa for eight Christmas Parades. Tom often gave children a Santa ring, telling them to put the magic ring on their dresser and Santa would know if they had been bad or good. “I ran out of them, and I can’t find them anymore,” he said with dismay. He has appeared in Christmas commercials and worked at Holiday World as Santa, to give their “regular” Santa a break. Tom has even attended the Santa Convention at Pigeon Forge, a convergence of hundreds of Santa’s. All in all, Tom has gone through four Santa suits, but he always keeps a spare cleaned and ready.
The Burtons have 10 grandchildren and 8 great-grandchildren who are also enthralled with Santa’s presence. The first time his 5-year-old grandson Paul saw his granddad getting ready for the Christmas Parade, he said, “I know you’re really Santa Claus ‘tending to be my granddaddy.”
A few other challenges come with being Santa. Tom said he has to think quickly because he gets more than his fair share of tough questions from children. One of the biggies: “Where’s Rudolph?”
Tom has worn many hats through the years, from running a propane gas company (SureGas) and trucking company, to driving a tour bus, to cooking at Settle Memorial, to operating a limousine service, to donning Santa’s hat. “In ’88, I decided I wanted to retire (from the gas and trucking companies), which I did—for six months—but then I couldn’t stand it anymore . . .” Tom said. He thought the limo service would be a nice weekend business, but it has grown exponentially into a week-long, year-long, fully-operational fleet of seven limos which cover a 9-county area, venturing practically anywhere: a shopping trip to Chicago, a weekend at the Kentucky Derby, or a simple trek to and from Nashville, St. Louis or Louisville’s airport. “There’s one thing that I love to do, and that’s to drive. You can tell by what I’ve been doing,” Tom said. The family collaborates on their limo business: Tom takes care of all maintenance; B.J. oversees dispatch and marketing; Pat does all the accounting.
No wonder Santa drives in style, especially when Rudolph and the other reindeer are unavailable for transport. He travels first class. Santa personally drives those who book limousine service for Christmas light tours, or even a Christmas dinner in Evansville.
As I was leaving, an unmistakable twinkle accompanied his jolly Ho-Ho-Ho. Not sure, but I think his little round belly shook, when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.