by Robin Sutton Anders
If you’re Joe Grady (a.k.a Santa Claus ambassador, Mountains Division), you love fielding questions about Christmas Eve.
Like this one: How do you make it around the world in one night? “Christmas Eve is a magical night, and Santa has fairy dust that can stop time,” Grady explains.
Or the classic “can-I-have-a-puppy” request. “Santa is a toymaker,” he clarifies.
But some questions are hard to answer, even for Santa Claus. Thoughtfully stroking his beard, 63-year-old Grady pauses a minute before he responds to one of the toughest questions he’s gotten that week. “Take your right hand, and put it over your heart,” he says to a 9-year-old at his side, who just asked if Santa could bring his grandmother back for Christmas. “Now close your eyes and imagine you and your Grandma baking chocolate chip cookies. She’s with you all the time. When you miss her, put your hand on your heart.”
From his home base in Asheville, North Carolina, Grady accepts Santa requests from all ages. One of his favorite stops is the nursing home. It’s not unusual for him to visit seniors who haven’t recognized anyone in a long time. “I’ll walk in, and they’ll say, ‘hey, Santa.’”
One woman hadn’t walked in months, and when Grady stooped down next to her wheelchair for a photo, she proudly got to her feet. “She said, ‘No, if Santa is coming to see me, I’m going to stand up for him,’” he remembers. “These are the moments that touch your life.”
Grady’s list of Kris Kringle credentials is almost as long as his Nice list. He’s a graduate of the C.W. Howard School for Santas — the “Harvard of Santa Claus schools,” he’ll have you know. He attended the International University of Santa Claus with a B.A. in Santa Clausology. He’s a member of the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas.
And, of course, he’s a AAA member. “After all, people depend on me,” he says.
“Arrivals and departures are important in delivering holiday gifts. I know with AAA, if anything should happen, they will be available 24 hours a day. That’s a great feeling.”
In addition to his sleigh, Grady appreciates that all his vehicles are covered under his membership. “Last winter I needed a jump for a dead battery, and AAA was there for the rescue,” Grady says. “And I use AAA to map my routes all over the world. They assist me in navigating when I need it the most!”
If it’s true that the clothes make the man, Grady could pass for the Big Man himself, not just an ambassador. His suits — some red, some green green (“Well, do you wear the same thing every day?” he asks) — are tailor-made by Adele’s of Hollywood. His belt buckle came all the way from Texas. His boots are jet-black Harley Davidsons. His gloves are from a boutique in North Carolina. And maybe, he thinks, he sourced his thick beard and snowy-white hair from his mother, whose hair turned white at 21.
This time of year, Grady thinks about her a lot. “My mom loved the holidays. She spared no expense when it came to Christmas. Everybody knew the Grady house,” he says.
Grady’s mother passed away about 17 years ago, but he knows she’d be proud to see him today. “When I was a kid, I was the one who decorated the tree with her. We did all the outside decorations together,” Grady remembers, taking his right hand and putting it over his heart. “I still smile when I visualize that.”
(Go Magazine November 2021)
(Photos: Lisa Crates Photography)