Meet the Pittsboro grandfather who’s fully embraced his likeness to jolly old Saint Nick
By Anna-Rhesa Versola | Photography by Val Stone Creager
Depending on his wardrobe, Mack Thorpe is recognized around town as a bearded entrepreneur who makes custom furniture in his Pittsboro wood shop, a scoutmaster for Troop 93 or a jolly old elf driving a big red pickup truck.
For that latter character, Mack, 68, has pulled on a crimson suit complete with jingle bell boots, a buckled belt, white gloves and a white-trimmed hat for the past 14 years. Once in costume, Mack transforms into a Santa Claus performer who regularly appears at The Carolina Inn in Chapel Hill, The Rusty Bucket in Apex and at private events, including in-home visits in the area.
“The first time I did it, I was in college – a little too young at that point,” Mack laughs, explaining that his best friend’s father owned a shopping center. “He wanted me to play Santa. So, we dyed my hair and beard. I was an awful-looking Santa.”
The Wilmington native is a former high school drafting teacher who became a manufacturing engineer before joining a marketing team for Northern Telecom (which later became Nortel). In 2004, Mack and his wife, Pam Thorpe, opened the aforementioned Rusty Bucket, where they sell country furnishings, like his handmade rustic farm tables, and locally made home decor.
Over the years, Mack began to resemble Kriss Kringle so much that becoming a professional Santa was irresistible. “It kind of evolved by default, I guess, because [kids] would come into the store to see Santa, and it would be me,” Mack says. “And so, I bought a suit. … And then I had a suit custom made about five years ago to beef up the quality of the look. And I did a couple of the Santa schools online.”
He says there’s a lot to learn about how to embody the spirit of Christmas. “Well, first of all, you want to be respectful,” Mack cautions. “You always ask the child, or the parents, if it is OK for them to sit in my lap. Don’t just assume that they’re going to. Another ‘don’t’ is don’t actually tell a child you will get that toy for them. Tell them you will consider it.”
Mack says some kids are prepared with a long list of requests that can include a pet. “And I’ll kind of look at their parents, and they’ll shake their head ‘no’ or ‘yes.’ That helps. Basically, you say, ‘Well, I’ll see what I can do.’” He says kids have sharp eyes and keen hearing. “The thing you have to remember is that Santa is a performer and you want to stay in character,” he says about having side conversations with parents. “Never, never go out of character when you’re in your Santa suit. In the early days, it was difficult.” He recalls one father who brought his toddler daughter to see Santa. “The father leaned over to me and said, ‘Santa, I owe you an apology.’ And I said, ‘You do? What for?’ He said, ‘Well in 1994, I peed on you.’ Oh, my God, I just died laughing. I said, ‘You’re forgiven.’”
Children have seemingly endless curiosity about how Santa manages his work. As Santa, Mack says he has many helpful tools. “On my belt, I have several keys – magic keys – because not every kid has a fireplace, and I tell them the magic keys help me get into their house,” he says, adding that his key fob turns off security alarm systems so Santa doesn’t wake anyone up when he drops off toys. And when Santa is not cruising rooftops on Christmas Eve in his sleigh, he drives a candy apple red Ford Raptor “monster” truck. Then, there are questions about reindeer, elves and Mrs. Claus. Mack chuckles at the ingenuity of a child’s imagination.
Becoming Santa has intangible benefits for this father of two grown daughters who have children of their own. (Though, while Mack and Pam have 11 grandchildren, ranging in age from 2 to 12, he does not play Santa for them, he says, because “I’m Granddaddy with a white beard.”) He marvels at how young children wholeheartedly believe in the magic of Christmas.
“They believe so completely,” Mack says, with awe in his voice. “And they are so enamored with it. It’s real to them. I became more aware [of it] than when I experienced it with my own children when they were small. It’s truly a blessing to talk to these children, and they are just so excited to see you. Of course, you have the [odd] meltdown or two, but most of them are very excited to see you. It’s like being a rock star. You come barreling into that big banquet room over there at The Carolina Inn, and some of them will just break away from their parents and run up and hug you. It’s unconditional love.”
Some adults are just as excited to see Santa, too. “I guess it brings back memories of their own childhood when they believed,” Mack says. “That was a big surprise.”
He says performing as Santa has been an unexpected gift. “I don’t have the words to explain how I feel from the joy that I get from these children and their parents, too,” Mack says. “The things they ask you, and they’re so sincere and they believe so completely. I don’t have the words for it. It’s the most joyful, rewarding thing that I’ve ever done.”