He’s served as both a volunteer and professional emergency crew worker for four decades, was chief of the Crozet Volunteer Fire Department, won several community service awards and helped with the Boy Scouts, but these important roles are mundane earthly employment, mere mortal pursuits compared to Preston Gentry’s December assignment.
For the past 35 or 40 years, he’s been Santa, the kindly presence perched on the fire truck waving and throwing candy. More often than not, you’ll see him with his sidekick the elf, embodied by Arnold (“Tweezer”) Van Ness, who’s been donning his funny green hat and jester’s collar almost as long as Gentry’s Santa has been draping himself in ermine and red velvet.
The long, fur-trimmed red jacket and pants were handmade, nothing like the flimsy imitations you’ll see on department-store Santas. They look exactly like an outfit that would keep its wearer warm at the North Pole, and there’s plenty of room underneath for the layers that help Santa fulfill his appointments in freezing weather.
It’s not only the costume that looks authentic. Once his facial hair turned white, Gentry grew it out in a fluffy beard, but decided not to do the same with his white hair, expecting it would look more seedy than jolly. The authentic beard also preserves Santa’s image when children are tempted to tug a little at Santa’s chin.
The cold doesn’t bother him, Gentry said, but Santa once made his appearance in the rain, and it took forever for the thick scarlet outfit to dry out and for Santa to warm up. That’s not the only mishap in Gentry’s years of impersonating the jolly one: once he thought the driver stopped for him to wave, so he stood up to better dispense his holiday candy. The vehicle lurched forward and “I ended up in the hose well,” Gentry said, “but no one was hurt.”
He has other stories, lots of them, and some are sad. He remembers times when he’s been called to private homes where he was introduced to a sick child. It was unspoken, but often obvious, he said: “Sometimes the parents knew their son or daughter was not going to live to see another Christmas Day.” Another time, a child’s only request was for a home for his family to live in. He’s also reminded of the hardship the holidays present for lonely people when he visits senior living facilities, something he’s often asked to do. He’s aware that he may be the only visitor for some of them during the holidays. Overall, though, the universally warm reception proves that Santa’s appeal is multi-generational.
Other occasions are humorous. There have been incidents where parents hoped to encourage their skeptical children to hold fast to their belief in Santa Claus for another year or two. “They’d have me come to their house at night with some toys, to sort of convince the children to keep believing,” Gentry said. One thing, though: “I’ve never been asked to put myself in a chimney.”
Gentry loves the fireman’s parade, but over the years has also really enjoyed his one-on-one interactions with children and learned how to win the trust of shy children. “You just can’t force yourself on them,” he said. He speaks quietly, offers them some candy, and more likely than not they’ll eventually respond.
Does he have anything in common with the mythic figure he impersonates each year? Gentry says he’s usually easy going, loves Christmas, appreciates children, is quick to laugh and generally has a sunny outlook. “If I’m feeling down at all, it quickly goes away,” he said. “To see a smile on a child’s face always makes me happy.”
Don’t miss Santa and his elf at the Crozet Christmas Parade Sunday, December 5, at 3 p.m. The route goes from Wayland Drive, north of downtown, to the firehouse on Three Notch’d Road. No registration is necessary to join the parade. Line up begins on Wayland Drive at 2 p.m. Meet Santa at the firehouse for hot chocolate after the parade. Santa is fully vaccinated, but will wear a special Santa mask. Children planning to sit on Santa’s lap are requested to be masked as well. There will also be an option for children to sit across from Santa for a brief visit.