'Santa of Chester County' to retire

Above, Carlisle McCrorey of Lowrys. At left, McCrorey in his Santa outfit.
Above, Carlisle McCrorey of Lowrys. At left, McCrorey in his Santa outfit.

CHESTER -- An 86-year-old man in a worn red suit plans to walk out of 117 Crescent Drive this morning.

For the last time, he'll leave the one-story brick house where he's lived since 1966 and head to the Lowrys Community Center to wait for a firetruck.

The firetruck will take him to a nearby station for a quick visit before returning to line up for the Christmas parade at 1 p.m.

The owner of the suit is Carlisle McCrorey. Or, if you lived in Richburg, Lowrys or Chester in the past three decades, Santa Claus.

For nearly 30 years, McCrorey has played the world's most famous reindeer pilot. He's essentially the only Santa the Richburg Christmas parade has ever known. Same for the Lowrys parade. And for the past 21 years, he's taken his seat on the last float parading through downtown Chester.

But this year is it.

"I tell them I'm gonna retire after this year," said the jolly octogenarian. "If they'll let me."

McCrorey said his body just can't handle the seasonal role anymore. He had Richburg's parade last Saturday, Chester's parade Sunday and Lowrys today.

Then his time on a float is over.

The Santa role started decades ago when he put on a suit and fake beard and took a seat at the Roses store in the old Chester Mall. As part of a fundraiser for the Chester Civitan Club, children would pile onto his lap, share their Christmas wishes and pose for a Polaroid photograph.

When the Jaycees started Richburg's parade nearly 30 years ago, one of their members was McCrorey's nephew, who asked him if he would play Santa.

"Quarter of a century later, still parading," McCrorey said.

When Lowrys started holding parades, McCrorey was asked to play Santa. And when the man who played Santa in the Chester parade died 21 years ago, McCrorey was the obvious replacement.

"He's done unusually well," said Betty McCrorey, or Mrs. Claus, who married Carlisle in 1950. "He really does it all. He loves children. He loves a lot of people that he really doesn't know. ... He's done it for years, and he enjoys it."

During his tenure as the county's Mr. Claus, McCrorey has only missed two parades, one in Richburg and one in Lowrys.

The year he missed the Lowrys parade, the event was postponed because of rain. And the year he missed the Richburg parade was the same one the local football team made it to the state championship game. The parade had to be postponed because most of the town was in Columbia.

He couldn't play Santa when the parade was rescheduled for the next week because he was riding in the Lowrys parade.

Over the years, churches started asking him to stop by and talk to children during their Christmas parties. The kids tell him what they want for Christmas. McCrorey said his standard response is, "We'll see what we can do," unless he gets a reassuring nod from Mom and Dad.

The children's excitement is contagious: "That's what makes it so much fun, you know, to see the fun that they get out of it."

Other than their gift requests, the most frequent question McCrorey gets is: "Where are your reindeer?"

His answer is creative: He flew them to the airport and left them there so they could graze while he talks to kids.

Most of the time, the questions are easy. Only twice has he heard difficult requests: One boy wanted Santa to heal his sick mother for Christmas; another wanted Santa to reunite his divorced parents.

He had to tell those children that there are some things Santa can't do.

Looking back on his career in a red suit, McCrorey said he's ridden on wagons, buggies, firetrucks and floats.

His parade day routines are almost down to a science. In Richburg, he dresses at his sister's house and lines up around 10:30 a.m. In Chester, a police officer comes to pick up Santa at home around 2:30 p.m. Knowing it might disturb some of the children to see Santa in a police car, McCrorey rides in the front seat.

In each parade, McCrorey makes sure to waive to both sides of the street. He says "Merry Christmas" too, even though the other noises drown him out.

Over the years, he's gone through a few beards and wigs. But since he quit renting suits and bought his own about 25 years ago, it's held up well.

And the cost of such cheer?

"Never have charged," he said. "Never did believe in doing that."

But once you put that coat on, he said, folks expect you to wear it year after year. Although he's enjoyed all the parades, next year he plans to be a spectator.

"Santa's always last in the parade," he said. "You never get to see what's in it."