When he’s not sliding down chimneys or double-checking the naughty-or-nice list, Santa Claus works as a plumber at St. Jude.
With his long, white beard and jolly demeanor, he answers to Claus, Kringle and St. Nick, but his St. Jude colleagues know him best as Phillip Santucci, a 25-year employee of the Facilities Operations and Maintenance department.
Santucci has portrayed Santa in Memphis since 2008. He serves as the jolly old elf for several area events and for St. Jude activities.
“I don’t consider becoming Santa Claus as playing a part. I try to portray him,” says Santucci, who is a member of the Mid-Southern Santa Society and the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas. In August, Santucci received a Bachelor of Santa Claus degree from the International University of Santa Claus after completing two, 12-hour days studying Santa Clausology.
He begins growing a beard in June. By late November, it’s the right length and shade of white to draw attention from St. Jude patients and families and employees. Children often stop him in the hospital’s hallways, surprised to see him in a blue work uniform. Santucci’s secondary employee ID badge that reads “Santa Claus” confirms their suspicions.
“A little boy stopped me recently and asked why I wasn’t in my red suit,” Santucci says. “I told him this –my blue uniform—is my toy-making suit.”
Santucci owns three Santa suits-- one reserved specifically for functions attended by St. Jude patients. He’s heard all types of gift requests—slime leads the list in 2017—but It’s the moments that he treasures the most: a shy boy gathering the courage to talk to Santa, a playful little girl grappling him in a headlock or a child asking to be held following a procedure.
“If I can bring a little bit of joy or a smile to a sick child, a worried parent or a staff member, that’s my biggest reward,” Santucci says.
Those smiles hooked Santucci during his debut as Santa nearly a decade ago. With no prior experience, Santucci donned the suit and beard as a favor to his brother-in-law, a local store manager who desperately needed to find a replacement after the first Santa backed out of an upcoming appearance.
Santucci’s portrayal of Santa has evolved into a look that he patterns after St. Nicholas. His wife, Shirley, joins him often as Mrs. Claus, including at St. Jude events.
“I try to make the whole experience as magical as possible,” Santucci says. “The way I look at it, these children are opening up their hearts to you, what better gift can you receive?”