It is the morning of the 2011 Grand Opening of the Enchanted Forest to benefit the LeBonheur Children’s Hospital at the Pink Palace Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. Even with ear protection, the sound of the helicopter blades beat against Kennison Kyle’s chest like a timpani. He is more than 100 feet off the ground. He looks over the crowd below, his brown eyes scanning for three familiar faces. There are almost 1000 people looking up. All are waiting for the helicopter to land.
Even from that distance, he makes eye contact with his mother. He has the sensation that she is sitting right in front of him, looking right back at him. Then he sees his sister and aunt standing next to his mom. Tears well up in his eyes and threaten to spill out onto his beard and red coat. He knew his family was going to be there, but he is surprised by the emotion it stirs in him.
The helicopter comes in for a landing and the crowd cheers. Ken waits, as he has been instructed, for the blades to stop turning. This gives him some time to take a deep breath and press the tears back into his eyes.
The door opens. The time has come. He is ready.
He pushes one shiny black boot to the edge of the doorframe and then the other. He drops to the ground below him and rises to his full height of over six feet. As he stands up, he raises his arms and yells, “Merry Christmas, Memphis!”
The crowd goes wild. Children and adults alike press forward to meet Santa. Handler elves control the crowd as best they can, but even so, children race around Santa Kennison’s legs, hugging him, wishing him Merry Christmas, and smiling, always smiling.
Pushing through the crowd are his mother, sister, and aunt. They reach out for him and pull him to them in a united hug. The tears pinch at his eyes again. This is the first Christmas without his father, their family’s first Santa portrayer, and the man who started it all.
It would seem Kennison Kyle was born to play Santa Claus. Even over the phone you can hear the spirit of Kris Kringle in him through a smile that rounds out his cheeks, winks in the little creases at the corners of his eyes, and curves his eyebrows, conveying warmth and sincerity, as they curl up and in toward the bridge of his nose. It’s no wonder both adults and children approach him throughout the year to ask him if he is Santa. Everything about him shouts that he is.
Kennison got his start portraying Santa in 1998 when his father, Jim Kyle, approached him. His dad needed to be two places at once, the USMC Toys for Tots event and the Super Kmart Coca-Cola promotion event. Kennison admits that he agreed to do it initially for the money. It paid more than twice as much as his part-time job and he had lived several Christmases in a row where he couldn’t afford to buy anyone gifts. It had ruined the holiday for him. Playing Santa meant he might be able to participate in Christmas, as well as pay off some bills.
As much as the money attracted him to portray the Jolly Old Elf, he has kept going back year after year because, as he put it, “It wouldn’t be Christmas if I didn’t.” The experience of flying over Memphis in a helicopter for the Enchanted Forest Grand Opening is one of his favorite events, but his favorite memories involve the joy on kids’ faces, the giggles that happen when a 70 year old sits on Santa’s lap for the first time in her life, the knowledge that he’s helping families make life-long memories, and the hope that he’s keeping the legend of Santa alive for one more year.
Over the years he has worked several events with the Salvation Army Memphis, the always sold out Memphis Botanic Garden’s Breakfast With Santa, and the LeBonheur Children’s Hospital Enchanted Forest, along with other charitable organizations. He has also been a part of Christmas promotions at local businesses, appeared at corporate Christmas parties, and done hundreds of private parties.
He has good memories from all of these experiences, but the ones that bubble to the surface the quickest are the ones that touch his heart the deepest. “My first or second year, the cutest, blonde, tow-headed boy came to see Santa,” he recalled. “All he asked for was mom and dad not to get a divorce. I was ready to go home and cry.”
He talks of the delight he takes in visiting the Memphis Oral School for the Deaf. He and his father are the only two who have ever visited the school as Santa and he says the students are some of the sweetest, most excited kids he sees in the season. “They hold onto their belief longer than other kids,” he said, “And they keep me on my toes, literally.” Four years ago, the students and staff gave Santa a pair of socks. The tradition continued so now Santa Kennison gets a new pair every year and, every year, he makes it a point to wear those socks to the school when he visits.
Being a part of people’s lives and their Christmas memories is part of what fuels Kennison’s inspiration portraying Santa, although it is also a way for him to make a living. He donates three appearances a season to charitable auctions and he appears at no cost for certain non-profits, such as the Memphis School for the Deaf. He also often discounts his regular charge of $125 per hour for certain events where the proceeds go for a good cause.
Some of his favorite appearances, though, are with families who wish to have a private audience with Santa. “I’ve had kids that never sit with Santa come sit with me for photos. To watch their face and Mom and Dad’s faces is priceless.” He also says he loves being a part of the Baby’s First Christmas photos, often taken at home. “When dads tell me it’s the best gift they received, I know I’m doing something right.”
He has brought hugs to the children of military parents stationed overseas. He has laughed with multiple generations of families trying to cram into the same photo. He has danced with the kids waiting to see him. He has soothed the fears of the littlest ones. So many memories, so much joy.
In February of 2011, a part of that joy died when Kennison’s father passed away. Christmas of that year was the first one he portrayed Santa without his dad being around. He credits his father with helping him get his start. “If it hadn’t been for Dad,” he says, “I doubt I’d ever put on the red suit.” His dad was always there as a coach and friend, teaching the basics, such as makeup application (which, he says, created a comic scene at a restaurant once), and teaching him phrases to use in certain situations.
All those memories are connected to his father. Portraying Santa is something they shared for more than a decade. So, when he flew above the crowd in a helicopter at the 2011 Grand Opening of the Enchanted Forest, when he made eye contact with his mom from 100 feet in the air, when he hugged his family in the mob of people, all of it came back to him at once and reminded him of his love for his dad and his love for the work they shared over the years.
Even though it feels good to walk through the last 13 seasons portraying Santa, he knows he’s got more memories to make. The best honoring of his father is to continue the tradition of bringing smiles to families in Memphis. So, on that day at the Enchanted Forest, as he hugs his own family, the sounds of the crowd pulls Santa Kennison out of his thoughts and back into the wave of people. Seeing their faces, their joy, their hope, and their excitement brings him back and lifts his face with that Santa smile.
Merry Christmas, Memphis!
Merry Christmas, All!
Santa Kennison is available for appearances any time of year. His starting rate is $125 per hour, with a special rate for families in his neighborhood association. He has even portrayed Santa in the “off season” of July for a special “Christmas in July” event! If you would like to have Santa Kennison appear at your party, family gathering, or event, please contact him at (901) 300-0536 or firstname.lastname@example.org.