A Very Special Santa
The boys and girls of Nashville have no need for visions of sugarplums these days. At the Opryland Hotel, the Christmas decorations bring the holiday season to life.
The trees are strung with thousands of festive lights, a job employees begin on Aug. 1, almost 150 days before Christmas morning. Santa’s parked his sleigh along the skywalk, and the seating areas of the restaurants are draped with colorful Christmas bulbs so big they’d weigh down the Abominable Snowman’s tree.
In fact, everything from the trees that stretch to the ceiling to the enormous nutcrackers is larger than life, and it’s all designed to lead people to the star attraction: Santa’s Winter Wonderland. While celebrity guests are almost common at the Opryland, Santa himself attracts thousands
of children who stand in line for hours this time of year just to share a few special moments with him.
But the man who’s filling Kris Kringle’s boots this year isn’tlooking for superstardom, just another way to earn a living. His name is Paul Shoun, a retired computer programmer from Murfreesboro, and he first put on Santa’s suit to supplement his Social Security.
This is his second Christmas season at the Opryland, but he’s been playing Santa for seven years, ever since his long beard turned snowy white.
“A lot of guys study and go to schools and I’ve never been really interested in that. I can ad-lib pretty good, and I just stick to that,” Shoun said in his relaxed Southern drawl.
He’s done some acting over the years, which allows him to slip into character without much thought, especially when skeptical children try to test his story with questions about the magic reindeer, but Shoun is prepared.
“They don’t go with me when I travel off-season because they can only fly on Christmas Eve,” he said. “That’s the only time the magic is in the air.”
When he can’t answer a question, he directs children to his friend Mr. Hanratty.
“He’s the shop foreman back at the Pole,” said Shoun. “He knows all about all the toys and everything, more than I really do, so I refer to him quite a bit.”
The opportunities he has to connect with children in those moments are Shoun’s favorite part of the job. Long lines and crying babies don’t faze him, but he’s not always able to spend as much time with each child as he’d like.
He prefers times like this particular Monday evening, where all is quiet in the Winter Wonderland. As he sips coffee from the travel mug he keeps behind one of the candy cane striped legs of his enormous green chair, he jokes with the photographers about the Christmas toys their children are asking for.
He sits up straighter and smiles broadly when he sees a little girl dash into the room a few steps ahead of her parents.
Zoey Raper, 4, is wearing her Christmas sweater, the pink one with the gingerbread men around the neckline. Her eyes grow wide as she looks around Winter Wonderland, complete with a Gingerbread Corner and a holiday train decorated in red and green. But she isn’t there for a train ride.
Her face lights up when she spots Santa with a knowing smile on his face, almost like he’d been waiting for her all along. Before the employees can even ask if she wants her picture taken, she runs up to Santa’s chair and introduces herself.
“Hi, Zoey. How old are you now?” he asks.
Zoey holds up four fingers.
“Well, you’re a beautiful girl. Sit up here on my knee; let’s take a picture,” he says.
Zoey beams at him as the cameras flash, but then she remembers why she’s there. When he sets her down to ask what she wants for Christmas, she begins talking quickly and quietly so only Santa can hear.
He leans in close.
“Tinkerbelle shoes? For you or for Tinkerbelle? Because Tinkerbelle’s shoes are pretty tiny,” he says, pinching his fingers together as if holding a fairy slipper. Zoey laughs and says the shoes are for her.
They talk for a few more minutes before he gives her a big hug, and the photographers snap a picture of that, too.
When Zoey’s parents, Angie and Mark Raper of Murfreesboro, ask her which picture she likes better, she points to them both and looks back at Santa.
“Bye bye, Zoey!” Santa says with a sweeping wave. Zoey grins shyly and hides her face behind the royal blue curtains hanging from the ceiling before running to catch up with her dad near the Gingerbread Corner.
Shoun laughs and settles back into the chair. “That’s the whole fun part, getting to hug kids,” he says.
Shoun said his job as Santa is really just a way to supplement his Social Security, but the parents know the relationships he builds with their children are something truly special.
“He’s got such a sweet spirit,” said Shannon Kiper, whose daughter, 8-year-old Kendall, has sat on this Santa’s lap every year since she was two.
“We went that first time, and then honestly, it was a joke; I think we went every day twice a day up until Christmas to see him,” she said.
The Kipers have moved to Atlanta since then, but they still come back to Nashville to visit Shoun.
Kendall said she is excited to ask him for a motorized bike when she sees him in a few weeks. “He’s definitely a special Santa,” she said.
Shoun will be at the Opryland Hotel until Dec. 24 at 6 p.m. He has other plans that evening.