Christmas starts in July for Denis Pancoast.

That’s when the PPL Electric Utilities senior engineer starts growing out his gray beard and indulging in chocolate chip cookies, because by December he’s a very busy man with very big boots to fill.

For the past four years, Pancoast has volunteered his time to portray Santa Claus for organizations throughout the Lehigh Valley.

Pancoast, who has been with PPL 32 years, knows it’s more than just playing a role. He sees it as “keeping the spirit of Christmas, and of Santa, alive.”

Becoming Santa

Four years ago, a friend who owns a dancing school in Catasauqua came to Pancoast to ask a favor. Her father, who had traditionally played Santa for her little dancers, had passed away. And her husband didn’t quite fill out the Santa suit. Not wanting to disappoint the children, she asked whether Pancoast would consider portraying Santa Claus.

He was happy to oblige, and started to grow out his beard. He admits that the first year his beard wasn’t quite up to snuff.

“Santa was challenged by many a child,” he joked. “I told them Santa’s beard magically grows on Christmas Eve.”

That first dancing school outing turned into an annual event, and now he’s doing about 10 appearances each year. He spent last Friday volunteering with LEAD for a Christmas party at Casa Guadalupe. He joined several PPL elves and executive sponsor, Chris Cardenas, to distribute gifts that the group had purchased for the children.

This week he’s visiting a local day care center, blood center, barber shop and several other local businesses he frequents and has permission to stop by.

Getting into the spirit

Denis Pancoast and other PPL volunteers at a Christmas party at Casa Guadalupe in Allentown.
Denis Pancoast and other PPL volunteers at a Christmas party at Casa Guadalupe in Allentown.

No matter where he dons the suit, Pancoast never asks for payment. He sees it as giving back and realizes he’s making memories with each visit.

“You feel this energy that comes from the kids. You’re giving back a little bit, but they’re giving so much,” he said.

He does his homework, studying old ads to go for the vintage Santa look. He adds white makeup in his beard and hair to give it a snow white hue.

He watches as many Christmas movies as possible so he’s ready if kids try to stump him – like by asking whether he prefers regular or soy milk with his cookies. It’s a reference to Tim Allen’s character in “The Santa Clause” (1994). And Pancoast is ready to reply that he prefers regular milk and of course, chocolate chip cookies.

He carries a silver bell in the pocket of the suit for those who may be questioning. He rings it and asks the child if they can hear it – a reference to “The Polar Express” story where only believers can hear the ringing of a bell.

And he’s careful to always phrase advice positively and to not promise on a present.

Special requests

Over the years, Pancoast has received requests for ponies, real cars and every kind of electronic gadget you can think of – including drones. He looks over to the parents or grandparents and always responds by saying, “That’s a special request. We’ll have to see.”

He’s had kids too shy to sit on his lap, but who just want to see him and stand by him. He’s had some children so star-struck that they forget what they’re asking for and have to get back in line once they remember. Still others can only whisper their Christmas wish.

But the most memorable moments are from the kids who catch him off guard.

“One girl said she wanted to do better in math,” he said. “She didn’t want a thing. She wanted to better herself.”

Pancoast was surprised, but as an engineer, had a nice conversation with her about her wish.

Some just want to tug at his beard to see if it’s real. Others confide to Santa that they’re being picked on at school.

On another visit to his father-in-law’s building, he surprised residents and spread a little Christmas cheer. He offered one 80-year-old woman a hug, and she broke down in happy tears. Pancoast was unaware, but the woman had recently lost her husband.

“In my eyes, I saw her go from 80 years old to 5 in an instant, as she called me Santa,” he said.

Upholding a tradition

Pancoast loves being able to spread Christmas cheer. If he had more time, he’d try to add more visits. But it’s a busy time of year and he tries to help his wife, who suffers from cystic fibrosis, with their own Christmas list. “She does so much, especially this time of year in spite of everything else she’s trying to handle,” he said.

For now, he’s happy to be able to give back in the busy holiday rush and loves the response he gets.

Passersby on the street will see him dressed as Santa and smile, wave or honk. He loves hearing kids whisper that they “saw the real Santa.”

But his favorite part of the tradition? The hugs and smiles he gets from each child who sees him as Santa.