Burnett “Burnie” Maybank Flake Jr. feels the spirit of Christmas in his soul when he sees the twinkle in the eyes of adoring children who flank to him as Santa Claus.

His impersonation of the legendary character who originated in Christian culture and brings gifts to children over the world brings him happiness and much more.

Christmas is not just about gift-giving, however, for the 50-year-old North native who has served as Santa at numerous public and private functions for more than a decade. It is about the birth of Christ while also sharing his principles of joy, peace and kindness.

‘They will get

their time

with Santa’

“As everybody knows, Christmas is to celebrate the birth of Christ. That’s what it is. I have people that tell me all the time, ‘Santa’s a lie, Santa’s this,’ or ‘Santa takes away from the real true meaning of Christmas,’ but I don’t think it does if you use Santa in the correct way,” Flake said.

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“I just don’t ask the kids, ‘What do you want for Christmas?’ I say, ‘Hey, how are you doing in school? Are you helping mom around the house?’ I’m trying to get them to understand what being nice, or being on the nice list, really means: being good to other people,” he said.

Flake, who now resides in Lexington with his wife, Paula, sat in for Santa Claus during this year’s Orangeburg County Christmas parade, which is sponsored by the Orangeburg County Chamber of Commerce. It is a task he has taken up for approximately six years.

He made appearances as Jolly Old St. Nick long before then for the City of Orangeburg’s Parks and Recreation Department, greeting children at the Centennial Park gazebo in Edisto Memorial Gardens. His last appearance at the gazebo was on Wednesday.

With a bushy white beard and big rosy cheeks, the heavy-set Flake doesn’t have to do much to look like Santa Claus and enjoys talking to children and helping make Christmas wishes come true.

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L.O.L. Surprise and Barbie dolls, Legos, virtual reality headsets, and “Paw Patrol” characters are among the popular requests by children this year, he said.

“I don’t know, it’s something about looking in those kids’ eyes when they walk up to see Santa. It’s amazing. It’s an innocence and excitement and wonder. You see magic, you see that those kids believe magic right there in front of them. It’s just the greatest thing in the world.

“I go home laughing sometimes at the kids. I love to hear what they have to say, I love to talk to them. Everybody feels like they have to rush because there’s a big, long line .. but I sit there and try my best to talk to them and try to give each child as much time as I think that child needs,” he said.

He continued, “They’re getting to see Santa. They will get their time with Santa, and I will do everything I possibly can. If they’re afraid, I will do everything I can to ease the fear and get them where they can come to talk to me and mom can get a picture.”

He said the funny thing about the kids is how fast their list grows when they see him.

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“Kids come to me and have their list, but when they see Santa, it’s automatically, “I want a dirt bike, I want a four-wheeler, I want a VR headset, I want PS5, or I want an iPad. When they see Santa, it’s like, ‘Oh, this is my chance. I’m going to try to get something good,’” Flake said, laughing.

He said he has learned to ask children whether their parents would think their choices are good ideas before obliging their requests – or not. He said a hidden nod or shake of the head from parents makes his job easier.

“If they give me the nod, then I’ll go, ‘I probably can get that for you,’ but if mom and dad are shaking that head back there, then I’ll go, ‘Well, I don’t know if that’s a good idea. What’s the next thing on your list?’” Flake said, laughing.

“We’ve got a lot of requests for L.O.L. dolls and the ‘PJ Masks’ characters. Legos are always popular. Everybody wants Legos and Barbie dolls. So that’s my go-to. Some little guys and girls want the ‘Paw Patrol’ characters. They want Chase, Rubble, Skye and Marshall. Santa’s got to know who everybody is,” he said.

‘It just makes

my soul feel good’

Flake, a photographer by trade, owns his own photography shop, Ultimate Images Photography, in Lexington. Most of his Santa appearances are booked through his business.

He recalled starting his work as a Santa impersonator 12 years ago during a Girls Scouts’ Breakfast with Santa event when he was 38 years old.

“They needed somebody to wear a suit, and I was like, ‘Sure, I’ll do it.’ So I glued a beard on because I didn’t have a full beard at the time, put on a wig and got a store-bought Santa suit. I went in and talked to the kids and everything at the Breakfast with Santa. One thing led to another and then it was kind of like I had too much fun doing it,” Flake said, laughing.

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“It was kind of like, ‘Hey, will you do it next year?’ I said, ‘Sure, I’ll do it next year.’ The next year I had grown my beard out and kind of customized my suit a little bit. So I was little bit better than just some guy wearing a store-bought suit wearing a fake beard. Then I just kind of started picking up jobs here and there,” he said.

Flake, who also serves as a photographer for the Columbia City Ballet, served as their Santa during the ballet’s production of “The Nutcracker” at the Koger Center from 2010 to 2019.

“Everything kind of changed a little bit there in 2020. We couldn’t do it that year, and I had moved on to other things. Because I’m a photographer, I was doing pictures for the City of Orangeburg. The city ended up contacting me and wanted to know if I would be willing to be Santa for them in the gardens, and I’ve been down there ever since,” he said.

It wasn’t long before the Orangeburg County Chamber of Commerce called about serving as Santa in the county Christmas parade.

“I did it with my wife (as Mrs. Claus) three times. I’ve been through it all down there with the parade. We had the fire truck break down one year,” he said, noting that he’s also dealt with bad weather at the Centennial Park gazebo.

“One time it was about 38 degrees and raining. Almost no one showed up. We had mostly the older kids come through. The older kids are stopping because they’re not going to wait in line. I don’t care how old they are, if they see Santa and they can get to him quick, they’re coming to see him,” he said, laughing.

Flake said lines could otherwise stretch as far as the parking lot, with visiting Santa being a Christmas tradition among some families that he sometimes sees more than once.

“People are stopped from getting in the line at 8 o’clock, but I’ve been there as late as 9:30 finishing my line. We don’t turn people away from Santa. If you’re in line, you see Santa,” he said.

Flake said he enjoys having his wife join him in the gardens and during the county Christmas parade.

“It’s great. I love it. It gives me somebody that can kind of help me with stuff because once you’re there and you’re sitting down as Santa, the line starts coming. It doesn’t stop, and there’s very little Santa can do to direct when he’s having to sit there and talk to everybody,” he said.

He continued, “When you’ve got Mrs. Claus there, she’s able to talk to the kids and when they get close enough, they’re able to maybe take a picture with her, or whatever. It kind of takes away from that long wait that they’re having.”

Flake said he is sometimes mistaken for Fred McCurdy, “the real Santa” who served as the legendary character out at Woodhill Mall for decades before retiring.

“He retired the year that I started. He had started when he was 38 years, and I started when I was 38. I thought that was a funny coincidence. I called him on the phone because I had done some pictures of him as Santa Claus two years before. He gave me the quintessential instruction book on how to be Santa with about an hour-and-a-half long phone conversation from his 30 years of experience at being Santa,” Flake said.

He said he does not do Christmas Eve appearances as Santa because he needs to take time to relax and be with his own family, but that doesn’t stop the calls from coming.

He says he plans to come back to Orangeburg as long as he’s asked because the spirit of Christmas is still alive and well in his heart.

“I don’t know, my mom always liked Christmas. She was real big with Christmas. When I was growing up, Christmas was always a special time. It’s when family came together,” Flake said, noting that Christmas is a feeling that’s hard to describe.

“It’s not a thing, it’s a feeling. You feel differently at Christmastime. It has a completely different feel to it. You can’t describe it. It’s like being weightless. It’s like flying with your feet still on the ground,” he said.

“So when I’m talking to the kids, and they’re just open and everything, it just makes my soul feel good. I feel like I can give something back to these kids. Sometimes kids have hard times, and maybe talking to Santa might be the best way that they can let somebody know how they feel. So I try to keep my ears open for any kind of things like that,” Flake said.

Contact the writer: dgleaton@timesanddemocrat.com or 803-533-5534. Follow “Good News with Gleaton” on Twitter at @DionneTandD

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