The Joy of Giving
@story TONYA MCCOY
@images CHARLIE AND JERI MOFFETT and TEMPLE SKELTON MOORE
He wears large round golden bells pinned inside his coat, so you can hear him jingling as he approaches. Clad in furry red and white, his big black boots sounding against the tile floor, he enters the room and bellows, “Ho, Ho, Ho,” and the crowd goes wild.
Every year Charlie and Jeri Moffett, of Fort Smith, transform into Santa and Mrs. Claus. Santa carries his big, red toy bag with him wherever he goes. On top sit hand-sewn Raggedy Anne and Andy dolls which his mother made years ago. Mrs. Claus follows Santa, the white fur on her red skirt swaying as she rushes to keep up. There’s a sprig of holly pinned to her hat, and she peers through glasses painted to match the candy canes she carries in her basket. “It’s amazing how much joy he brings, just being in his outfit. I mean everybody’s joyful this time of year but it’s just extra, extra when they see Santa,” says Mrs. Claus. They moved to Fort Smith from Tulsa in 1994 and started playing Mr. and Mrs. Claus a few years later. “Isn’t it funny how you start something and later you think back, ‘how did we get this started?’ It just snowballed,” says Jeri. The Moffetts visit hospitals, churches, clubs, parks, and private homes free of charge.
Sometimes they are called on unexpectedly to suit up and spread some cheer. One December evening, the Moffetts were going to dinner when they got a call to play Santa. Charlie was working in accounting for Beverly Enterprises and the couple was supposed to meet a client at the Lighthouse Inn, in Fort Smith. However, before the two made it to the restaurant, someone from Grand Avenue Baptist Church called. There was a mix-up with their Saint Nick, and they were in need of a Santa. Kids from the Gregory Kistler Treatment Center for Children were waiting for the jolly old elf at the church. The couple regretfully declined because of their plans, but that was not the end of the story. “We got in the car and started to go, and Mrs. Claus looked at me and said, ‘You know what we have to do.’” Mrs. Claus interjects, “I knew that he knew - I never have to say a whole lot. He didn’t say a word, he just turned that car around. After we came back up the driveway, man we couldn’t beat it up the stairs fast enough. You should’ve seen it, red and white just flying everywhere.”
“When we arrived the kids just went crazy and I told Charlie there is not a dinner anywhere worth that,” says Jeri. The Gregory Kistler Center offers special care, including physical therapy for young people who suffer from such conditions as paralysis, brain injuries, and spina bifida. Charlie says, “A lot of them have to go through a lot of medical struggles just to survive. Just to see them walk up is amazing. You see them, and some are walking with a walker. You hold them and their faces just light up.” Mrs. Claus adds, “When they’re sitting on his lap, and they have the little braces on their legs… it’s just a joy to see them sitting there, looking happy.”
The two share stories, finishing each others’ sentences as they sit in the living room of their hundred year old Victorian home in Fort Smith. With a twinkle in their eyes, each chatters happily about Christmases past. Charlie, wearing suspenders that remind you he is Santa Claus, grins as Jeri teases him. Jeri says, “I tried to get him to grow a beard, but it just didn’t work, but the one we have is pretty and all… but I want him to be as ‘real’ as possible. You know this is real.” Jeri reaches over and pats his belly and the two giggle. “In fact one child touched his belly last year and said, ‘Oh! You are the real Santa.’”
For Jeri, making the experience ‘real’ for children is so important that the couple parks their car blocks away, because the kids expect to see them leave on their sleigh. “Even when we park around the corner, they’ll press their little noses to the window and watch. And I say ‘Charlie they’re going to see us. Duck!’” But Jeri has a solution; she plans on painting her Kia Sportage red and lettering Santa-Mobile on the side. She wants to string Christmas lights along the front, add antlers to the top, and put a giant, prop key on the back to make the small SUV look like a windup toy. With all of Jeri’s creative schemes, Charlie says that living with her is like being married to Lucille Ball.
No one knows kids like the Moffetts. Jeri has spent years teaching Fort Smith elementary students, and Charlie started substitute teaching a few years ago. They have six children, seventeen grandchildren, and six great grandchildren. Each holiday season, the Moffetts celebrate Christmas with their family a week early. They leave their calendars open for last minute appointments for Mr. and Mrs. Claus.
Christmas is so important to the Moffetts that Jeri keeps every letter to Santa they’ve ever received, in a basket in their home. Letters that say: I’ve been good this year could you please get me an Ipod Shuffle and a Webkinz? The same request also asks for a skateboard or a Barbie. But one special Christmas letter brings tears to both Charlie and Jeri. “There was one little boy whose little sister was really sick and all he wanted was for his sister to have a good Christmas. He said, ‘If you can, I’d really like you to help my sister out,’” says Charlie.
While some kids can only quietly pass their letters along, stunned to shyness by the mere presence of Santa, other children knock the big guy over just to give him a hug. “Some come like they’ve known you all their life, and they run straight into you,” says Santa. “When we went to Saint Edward there were so many arms wrapped around my legs, I couldn’t even move. But it was so wonderful. To me this is what Christmas is all about. It’s just the joy of giving, and I hope that’s what we’re doing. I hope we’re giving joy, too,” says Mrs. Claus.
If ‘Santa Claus’ means bringing joy, then Santa is real, and he lives in Fort Smith, Arkansas. If you’d like to visit Mr. and Mrs. Claus, they’ll be helping the Salvation Army at Creekmore Park this holiday season. “Life is hard, but to give people who are sick or in pain, or lonely, a little bit of hope is indeed a blessing,” says Mrs. Claus.
When Santa and Mrs. Claus leave a room, again you’ll hear the jingling of bells from Charlie’s coat, but if you listen a little closer, you’ll hear Jeri whisper: “Don’t forget Charlie, your Ho Ho Ho.”