Atlanta couple embodies true meaning of Santa year-round

Jack and Trisha Senterfitt spread Christmas cheer in Georgia all year long.
Jack and Trisha Senterfitt greet Kendall Prince, 7, in Stone Mountain. (Natrice Miller/

Jack and Trisha Senterfitt greet Kendall Prince, 7, in Stone Mountain. (Natrice Miller/

In early 2014, Lisa Bowling wasn’t sure exactly how long her young son, Landon Childs, had to live, but she knew as she sat with him in the intensive care unit at Children’s Health Care of Atlanta that he would enjoy the company of a very special visitor. So, she called the man she knew as Santa Jack and asked him to come to the hospital.

“I let Jack know, ‘Look, Landon’s in the hospital. I know you’re not that far away,” Bowling told the AJC. “I’ve been told it’s not going to be long.”

This wasn’t the first time Bowling had painstakingly cared for a child dying from Metachromatic Leukodystrophy (MLD), a progressive disease that damages the central nervous system. She had buried her 4-year-old daughter, Leah, on Christmas Eve 2006 after her death from the affliction. Bowling hadn’t even had time to grieve when Landon began to deteriorate.

When Santa Jack arrived at the hospital, Landon was unable to communicate and had lost his sight, but he could still hear.

“The moment that Jack walked in and said something to Landon, Landon’s head turned toward the door (and he) had this grin on his face like, ‘I know who you are,’” said Bowling.

Landon died at home six months later at the age of 9. Santa Jack attended the funeral and presented the family with a copy of Steve Smallman’s storybook, “Santa is Coming to Georgia,” inscribed with a special message from Santa. They tucked it into Landon’s casket.

Jack Senterfitts visits Landon Childs in the hospital.
Courtesy of Lisa Bowling

Credit: Lisa Bowling

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Credit: Lisa Bowling

Making children feel better

Long of hair and beard — a snowy white aesthetic he maintains year-round — Jack Senterfitt, 76, sat beside his wife, Trisha, 77, one recent morning at their new home at Park Springs Senior Living in Stone Mountain, where they recently relocated from Cherry Log. They spoke of a life devoted to service.

For nearly two decades now, the Senterfitts have represented the ideals of Father Christmas and Mrs. Claus. After raising their children and carrying out prominent professional careers, they now spend much of their time in costume spreading holiday cheer in classrooms, photo shoots, parties and parades.

Senterfitt’s jolly appearance frequently draws attention from young onlookers in public, along with inquiries like, “Where are your reindeer?” and “What’s my street address?” A career as a trial lawyer has helped him stay quick on his feet, so he relishes the interrogations. But whether he’s bantering with kids in public or meeting with special needs youth like Landon, his goal is to boost children’s self-esteem.

“To me, this is all about helping the child feel better about themselves,” he said.

Katrina Kingsley, pre-K director for Gilmer County Schools, has worked with Senterfitt extensively as he’s served special needs kids in North Georgia.

“He takes it very seriously, and he has a heart for it,” Kingsley said. “It’s like a mission, a ministry for him, to be able to provide that for these children.

Trisha Senterfitt was inspired to become Mrs. Claus when she saw children's faces light up at the sight of Santa (her husband Jack Senterfitt). (Natrice Miller/

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Faith roots

The Senterfitts met at Eckerd College (then Florida Presbyterian College) in St. Petersburg, Florida, and married the summer after graduation in 1968. Their lives have always been steeped in faith. Trisha, the daughter of a Presbyterian pastor, would later serve 14 years as an associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta. Jack was the son of a Baptist minister of education.

“Where I got the inspiration, ultimately, to do this Santa, a lot of it goes back to my dad,” he said. “He would shake your hand and ask your name, but he wouldn’t let your hand go until he had repeated it two or three times so he would remember it.”

After a stint in the U.S. Army, Senterfitt completed his law degree at Vanderbilt in 1974, and the couple moved to Atlanta where he joined the law firm that would become Alston & Bird. There he was a civil trial lawyer and litigator working on business and personal injury cases. By the time he took early retirement in 2002, he was a partner with the firm. He fully retired from law five years later.

A hard pivot

Senterfitt’s first appearance as Santa was at a children’s home when he was still practicing law. Back then, he didn’t have the facial hair to pull off the look, so he wore a fake beard, but it was a revelatory moment.

“It was just like the proverbial lightbulb going off,” he recalled. “This is the most incredible experience to look in the faces of these little children and see the wonder and the excitement and the hope and the belief, and it’s just so moving.”

It was a hard pivot from his days in the courtroom.

“I’ve often joked that in all my time as a trial lawyer, there was usually somebody who was not happy with me,” Senterfitt said. “Now, it’s fun to be Santa Claus and make people smile.”

Things snowballed after Senterfitt appeared as Santa in a North Georgia Christmas parade, prompting Trisha to get involved after she witnessed how the children responded to him.

“They lit up,” she said. “When I picked up Jack, I said, ‘I’m going home. I can sew. I can make myself Mrs. Claus.’”

She began accompanying Senterfitt to photo shoots, parades and classroom visits — showing up to about half his appearances. At one point, Senterfitt was averaging around 60 gigs a year; he does fewer now. Some of those appearances pay a nominal fee, but he’s done mostly charitable work from the beginning.

Senterfitt considers it a "sacred honor" to visit terminally ill patients. (Natrice Miller/

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Breaking barriers

When Senterfitt began visiting students receiving support from Cherry Log’s Craddock Center, a nonprofit that provides educational and cultural enrichment to kids in Southern Appalachia, the couple saw how Santa could be a bridge to reaching more children. He saw children who wouldn’t have been able to afford the portraits with Santa, handmade wooden toys and books they received for free with his visits. The day he met a Hispanic boy in Ellijay struggling with a language barrier, things really took a turn.

“He sat on my knee and I said, ‘What do you want for Christmas?’ And the only thing he could say in English was ‘Trick or Treat.’” Senterfitt said. “That just broke my heart, and I resolved that I was going to do something about it.”

His answer was a Spanish language immersion program in Honduras. Kingsley said children’s eyes light up when they realize Santa can speak Spanish with them.

One-on-one sign language tutoring followed. Then he partnered with Gilmer County Schools on an annual Sensory Santa event where special needs students of all ages can visit with him in a low-stimulation environment.

“He is a very unselfish, giving, kind person, and he is just all about helping those children,” said Kingsley.

And then, there are families like Landon’s.

In 2010, Senterfitt joined Santa America, a national organization that brings Santa to the homes of special needs and terminally ill children, veterans and military families year-round. Serving with the organization has given him what he calls the “sacred honor” of serving children with afflictions from which there is no recovery. He’s now on the Santa America board and helps organize Santa training symposiums where participants work with experts in areas like autism and childhood trauma. Training as a hospice volunteer is required.

Senterfitt admits that attempting to spark joy in families with a terminally ill child can take an emotional toll on him.

“There are times when I come out of those situations, and it’s very, very draining,” he said. “I think, ‘Here is a child that’s never going to be able to experience so many of the things that children do.”

Establishing a balance

Although Senterfitt is available all year for visits through Santa America, the couple’s busy season ramps up in early November. At the beginning of each holiday season, Senterfitt goes to a professional hairdresser for an all-day beard and hair whitening session. Trisha’s regimen is simpler.

“I just put on a wig,” she said, smiling.

They wind things up each season just in time to celebrate with their own family.

Their kids were skeptical early on about their parents’ late-in-life, year-round fervor for Christmas. There was even some laughter, Trisha said, but it stopped when they saw Senterfitt’s interactions with kids in public.

“When they saw us in action, they quit complaining because they saw what it meant,” Trisha said.

“The motivation for me is not making money,” Senterfitt said. “I just try to have enough to cover my expenses, and I like to be able to have time with individual children.”

Those interactions translate into memories the Senterfitts carry with them forever. Through tears, Senterfitt relayed the words of the father of a terminally ill child he served a few years ago:

“‘I used to think that Santa always said, ‘Ho, ho, ho,’ but now, I understand that what he’s saying is, ‘Hope, hope, hope.’’”