Santa Claus stood near the corner of Bay and Charles streets and waved to the families that had come out for the annual Night on the Town celebration in Beaufort.
It was December 1994.
There were few websites back then and no Google. The answer to “Is Santa real?” still rested with recess svengalis and bratty older siblings.
In Beaufort that year, and in that particular moment, two teenagers attempted to answer the question for everyone around them.
As Santa talked with small children in the crowd, the teens bum-rushed him and yanked the beard off his face.
This clearly not-real Santa was mortified, of course.
He was stunned, angry and all the other words that describe the feelings someone might have if ever he’s in a position to witness the very moment a 4-year-old learns that heroes are deeply flawed and things aren’t always as they seem.
Left with no choice but to bear the indignity, Jack Gannon held the now-unattached beard to his face and dashed into Lipsitz Department Store, where he restored the costume and made two decisions about his future: It’s time to get better facial hair ... and I need a bodyguard.
Preferably an elf.
“By now,” Gannon writes in his recently published memoir “I Walked In Santa’s Boots: Lowcountry Christmas Memories,” “I hope those two teens have grown up with children of their own who did not experience the same kind of shock they caused, and hopefully feel some regret as to the result of their actions so long ago.”
For 23 years, Gannon has been Beaufort’s Santa Claus.
He has ho-ho-ho’ed at Night on the Town, at company parties, charity events, in parades, hospital rooms, living rooms, at breakfasts, and with adults, children, babies, criers, doubters, dogs, cats, ferrets, rabbits, birds and reptiles on his lap.
His are the anonymous set of eyes that appear in thousands of local keepsake photos.
He’s been tucked into Christmas cards, adhered to cellophaned pages, magnetized to grandparents’ fridges, texted to aunts and uncles, Facebooked, newspapered, and brought out from family archives to embarrass the now-grown babies who are newly dating.
He’s said “God bless you. Merry Christmas and happy New Year” to more people than most.
He’s heard the Christmas wishes of the deserving, the greedy and the hurting.
He’s broken no promises.
And now it’s come to an end, at least professionally.
“I’m passing on the candy cane baton,” Gannon said Monday afternoon. “I’m medically retired.”
For the first time in more than two decades, he will not be at A Night on the Town, downtown Beaufort’s unofficial kick-off to the Christmas season, which is this Friday evening.
Instead, he will sign books about it on Fripp Island.
It will be a good distraction for him.
Though Gannon worked for The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette for many years, I did not know him. I still don’t.
He won’t discuss his health in detail but told me he had known going into 2015 that it would be his last. He talked it over with his wife, Mendy, who was often at his side as Mrs. Claus, but kept the news to himself otherwise.
“I didn’t want there to be any sad feelings,” he said.
He spent much of his last Santa season praying for good weather so that his final appearances in town would be perfect.
Those prayers were answered.
“Do I have regrets about retiring?” he mused. “Of course.”
He didn’t have to tell me this. I heard it in the way he described his years as Santa — the way one would a calling or a mission or a profession.
There were core values to adhere to, skills that had to be honed, customer-satisfaction goals to be reached, messages to pass on.
I heard it in the way he described his role in the third-person. Always.
Santa asked the boys and girls how they were doing in school and whether they were helpful at home. Santa asked them what they wanted in a way that encouraged giving and gratitude. Santa taught them about St. Nick. Not Gannon. Santa did that.
And I heard it in the single proper noun he used to refer to his replacements.
They are New Santa.
Gannon wasn’t always so sacred about the position, though.
The first year he put on a Santa costume, he did so for the money. He will readily admit this. There was no altruism. It wasn’t for the children or the spirit of the holiday.
“I thought it was ‘Walk around. Say Merry Christmas. Say hello to kids.’ I just tried to be holly and jolly.”
Soon he began to realize the impact he was having. Santa made people happy. Santa brought families together. Santa offered hope.
There was something more to this seasonal work.
So he refined his portrayal and immersed himself in it. He took it seriously.
In “I Walked In Santa’s Boots,” Gannon writes about the good times he had year after year at the community’s Christmas events. The book is his love letter to the community, his way of showing them how much they matter to him.
“I wrote it as a thank you to the city of Beaufort. ... I just simply wanted to say thank you.”
This year and next though, he said, he plans to be “where Santa is not.”
He supports New Santa.
But he’s not ready to see New Santa.
He’s afraid he’ll be judgmental. That he’ll turn to Mendy and say or mumble to himself, “That’s not how Santa should be doing that.”
He wants to give the new Santas time and space to develop their own rapport with Beaufort.
“I wish New Santa the very best,” Gannon said. “Perhaps in 20 years he might write his own story.
“Maybe in a couple of years, I’ll go visit him myself.”
If you go
Jack Gannon, author of “I Walked In Santa’s Boots: Lowcountry Christmas Memories,” will sign copies of his book from 6 to 9 p.m. Friday at Bonito Boathouse on Fripp Island; at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Morris Center for Lowcountry Heritage in Ridgeland; from 5 to 6:30 p.m. Dec. 14 at the Beaufort library on Scott Street; from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dec. 15 at Ameris Bank in Beaufort Plaza; and from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Dec. 16 at McIntosh Book Shoppe on Bay Street in Beaufort. Details: facebook.com/santaclausbeaufortsc