Joe and Geanie Slifer don’t pull any punches when it comes to Christmas.
Just a few days before Thanksgiving, the Slifers start the undertaking of decorating their house for the season. Every room has its own Christmas tree, and each tree has its own theme. One is dedicated to travel, the other to football, another to Geanie’s years as a teacher. With 38 trees in total, it’s clear that Christmas is serious business around the Slifer house.
But then again, what more could you expect from Santa & Mrs. Claus?
For the last 15 years, Joe (’71) and Geanie (’69) have been donning the famous red suits, gloves, & hats to bring joy to scores of children during the Christmas season.
It all started when one of the Slifer’s neighbors asked them to help out with the Santa ministry at Duke Children’s hospital. Initially, the Slifer’s were just general volunteers with the program. Joe was the man behind the camera, taking photos of children with Santa.
But a few years later, the program needed a new Mrs. Claus, and Geanie readily stepped in. Soon after, the previous Santa had to leave his role behind as well. Joe stepped in, and the Slifer’s began a journey that has lasted over a decade.
The decision to take on the roles of Santa & Mrs. Claus have taken the Slifers many places. They’ve attended the International University of Santa Claus, where they both received advanced masters degrees in all things Kris Kringle; from how to make children feel comfortable, to getting the best photographs.
They’ve been around the world, from the Carribean, to Alaska, to the Santa Claus Conference in Copenhagen, where the Slifer’s celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.
With new places have come new people and new traditions. One of their good friends from the Christmas community is a Santa in Jerusalem, or as the Slifers call him, “Santa from the ho ho holy land.” They also know several Scandanavian Santas, who carry strings of pacifiers; a remnant of a Danish tradition in which toddlers “give up” their pacifiers by leaving them out for Santa.
While their travels are a fun perk of their job as Mr. & Mrs. Claus, the Slifers make it clear that the true focus of their role has always been the same: the children.
“That’s the best part.” Geanie explains, “the look on the children’s faces, their smiles. They’re just looking up at you with the most beautiful eyes. You just love them all.”
While the Slifers have worked in a variety of places, they spend a significant amount of time bringing Santa & Mrs. Claus to children’s hospitals; their longest running gig is at Duke Children’s. The importance of these visits is clear to the Slifers.
“We want to have as positive of an impact on these children as we possibly can,” Joe says.
Listening to some of their most cherished memories from the last 15 years, it is clear that the Slifers have achieved their goal.
Geanie speaks of the couple’s visit to the Governor Morehead School for the Blind, where she says a child walked up, and in complete awe of the presence of Santa & Mrs. Claus, asked to feel Geanie’s face.
“That child just put their hands on my face and said ‘Oh, you are so beautiful’,” she remembers. “I’ll never forget that.”
Joe remembers the story of a young girl at a children’s hospital who had been in a coma for 90 days. She was the last stop on a day full of visits.
The nurse who was showing the Slifers around asked them to go in and speak to the girl, but told them not to expect anything.
“Santa’s here to see you,” the nurse had said. And there, in the middle of the hospital room, Joe watched the girl smile and reach for his hand. Years later, he still becomes emotional recounting the moment.
“And that’s why we do it.” he concludes.
At the close of our conversation, the Slifers tell me that ultimately, they feel their roles as Santa & Mrs. Claus are a calling from the Holy Spirit.
The years of bringing joy, happiness, and comfort to children, Joe says, wouldn’t have been possible “without the prompting of the Holy Spirit.”
As we in the middle of this joyous season, it is clear the Slifers are fulfilling that calling yet again.