On the first Friday in December, crowds as large as 8,000 pack the tiny downtown crossroads in northwest Cherokee County for the March of the Toys Parade for Toys for Tots.
Spectators will stake out seats almost four hours early to get a glimpse of the bands, elaborate floats, and characters that come from around the country. There might be a Darth Vader, or the Hulk, or princesses like Cinderella. “Anything that kids like,” said Tim, who says he’s just a big kid himself. As snow-like bubbles fill the air, Santa and Mrs. Claus will bring up the rear in a sleigh. Free Santa visits follow at the town’s gazebo.
Ball Ground native and mayor Rick Roberts says it’s the city’s most exciting and significant event.
“It brings in people to our city to shop in our stores and gives kids a Mayberry-type experience,” he said.
For the Cavenders and an organizing committee of volunteers, the parade is a labor of love. They do it to help kids. Spectators fill Marines Toys for Tots donation boxes with new toys that are distributed to children throughout metro Atlanta.
“Giving back to others. That’s what brings us joy,” Tim said. “I can’t even imagine a child going through Christmas and not having a gift or a toy.”
Organizing the parade is a year-round undertaking. As soon as it’s over, ideas start churning for next year, Pam said.
“He works very, very hard on it all year long to try and get quality people,” she said.
Tim got his start playing Santa as a high school sophomore. He was talked into the role at a school assembly and dreaded going onstage to face his peers. But, as Tim discovered, no one outgrows Santa.
“When I ran down and did the ho, ho, hos, these students turned into children. They were excited,” he remembered.
From then on, Tim began playing Santa annually, using borrowed Santa suits from local churches for a few years before buying his own from J.C. Penney. When Tim and Pam married in 1998, she joined him as Mrs. Claus. Pam designed her costume, and now they both have their suits custom-made in Hollywood.
The Santa look and portrayal are critical to the Cavenders. He is a traditional Santa, and Pam has helped him refine the characterization over the past two decades. Tim wears a theatrical beard and dyes his hair, even though it’s naturally white.
“I’m a traditionalist. I know children before they come to see me; they already have an image of how Santa is supposed to look. I try to stay true to the traditional Santa Claus look,” Tim said.
His persistence in fine-tuning the Santa persona and giving time to charities placed Tim into the International Santa Hall of Fame in 2014.
The Hall is for a select group of Santas who go “above and beyond,” said Phil Wenz, one of the organizers of the Hall and one of its first inductees in 2010.
“Tim takes this not as a job, but as a vocation. He is a very dedicated, a very Christian person,” Wenz said. “And he and Pam work together like ‘Batman and Robin’; they compliment each other so well.”
The Cavenders want to bring a sense of wonder for kids, both young and young at heart. To achieve this, they don’t stay in costume outside of the holiday season. After Christmas, the suit and beard come off, and Tim will never answer as Santa when he’s not in his red suit.
“We try to make it as magical as we can,” he said.
MORE ABOUT TIM AND PAM CAVENDER
How Santa should act: "I want children to look forward to seeing Santa. Some Santas are always in character. They want the attention toward themselves. They introduced themselves as Santa. That's not the reason you're doing this. You don't want to draw attention to yourself. You want it to be special." — Tim
How Pam became Mrs. Claus: "My first birthday gift (from Tim) was a Mrs. Claus outfit, so I was destined to be Mrs. Claus. It's definitely a blessing. It's a rewarding thing to do and I'm just thankful I get to do it." — Pam
Inspired by childhood holiday memories: "I always attribute my father as the one who gave me a sense of wonder. On the first Christmases that I remember, he would do things that would keep my imagination going. …(My parents) didn't have much, but boy they gave us some wonderful memories around Christmas, and all the other holidays too." — Tim