Today Santa Cliff is one of the most famous Santas in the world. His picture has made its way across the globe, on gift bags, in portraits, and in advertisements. He has been inducted, alongside other famous Santas like Mickey Rooney, into the Santa Hall of Fame. His wife of more than 50 years might deny being “Mrs. Claus,” but that doesn’t mean their family doesn’t have a Christmas tree up year-round and a shed full of Christmas decor, Santa suits, and Santa Cliff portraits. Santa Cliff, often referred to as Cliff Kringle, even has a real-life diploma from the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School and he holds a registered “Santa Claus” license issued by the North Pole. But long before he was one of the most recognized Santas, Santa Cliff was just Cliff Snider.
Cliff Snider grew up in High Point on Lindsay Street and attended Wesley Memorial Church. He would walk every day from his school to his father’s print shop on Rand Street. But when Cliff was 15 years old, everything changed. In 1962, Cliff got a phone call that he later learned would be the last one he ever had with his father.
His dad called to talk to him, before joining Cliff’s Uncle Fred to pick up Cliff’s two cousins who were both getting out of the Marine Corps. His dad called to apologize that he’d miss the Labor Day holiday, to which Cliff assured him they would spend time together when he returned from the trip. But on the way back from picking up the family’s soldiers, the four men were in a fatal car crash, leaving the Snider family to grieve the loss of all four men.
“That devastated High Point,” Cliff says, his voice still full of emotion after almost 60 years. He calls his dad his best friend, and it took him years to truly reconcile his father’s death.
But it was that first Christmas without his father that inspired the beginning of his journey as Santa. That year at Wesley Memorial, the youth group decided to serve the Beddington Street Mission with a Christmas celebration.
“And they wanted somebody to be Santa Claus,” Cliff says. “Almost as a joke, somebody said, ‘Well, Cliff can do it. He’s the fattest one here.’ And everybody got a chuckle out of it, except for maybe me.”
Even still, Cliff agreed to put on the Santa suit and a wig and join the group.
“I went ho, ho, ho-ing into the Beddington Street Mission, and those children didn’t care that it was a teenager dressed up as Santa Claus,” he says. “As far as they were concerned, Santa had come to see them.”
As the youth group distributed presents, set up a Christmas tree, and let the children bring their Christmas wishes to Santa, Cliff says he felt something spark in his heart.
“It’s like, it happened just last week,” Cliff says. “It’s like God tapped me on the shoulder and he said, ‘Cliff, I know you’ve got a broken heart but by bringing joy and happiness to other people, I’m really going to heal your broken heart.’”
And from that moment forward, Cliff knew that in some part of his heart, he would always be Santa Claus.
Fast forward through graduating from Rochester Institute of Technology, to marrying his now wife, and eventually returning to High Point to follow in his father’s footsteps working as a print maker and reproducer.
In 1995, at a High Point Rotary Club Christmas party, Cliff saw something that later made his wife say, “this hobby is getting out of hand.” Cliff saw the High Point celebrity and radio host, Max Meeks, dressed up in what Cliff calls, “the most beautiful Santa suit he had ever seen.”
“I said, “Max, that’s got to be the most beautiful Santa suit I’ve ever seen. Where in the world did you get it?’ And he opened up his coat and he said, ‘From the Santa Claus Suit and Equipment Company of course.’”
Cliff’s mother went to work finding the manufacturer of the suit and having one ordered for Cliff’s Christmas gift that year. And from a suit company employee she learned of the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School. And soon, Cliff was heading back up north for another degree – only this one he could get over the course of a long weekend.
“They would accept 10 new students a year,” Cliff says, “so, I had to write a letter to the Dean of the school and explained why I thought I would make a good Santa Claus.”
In 1996, Cliff was accepted, and he went to a weekend of Santa-intensive classes that ended with his graduation. The school, founded in 1937 by Charles W. Howard, better known as the original Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade Santa Claus, gave Cliff a wealth of training on what it takes to be a “real Santa.” Cliff learned all kinds of qualities and techniques, like how Santa can’t make promises, how to handle children who want to know if he is the “real” Santa, and how to find the character qualities of Santa he most wanted to emulate. But at the end of the weekend, Cliff had some real doubts and insecurities about becoming Santa Claus.
“I told the Dean of this school…‘I’m just not sure I’m cut out to be Santa Claus.’” He saw how other Santas that weekend had fancier suits and a more natural way with children, and he wondered if he could really do it.
“And the Dean said, ‘Cliff, you don’t have to be like those Santas when you go back…don’t try to be like any other Santa. Don’t try to copy anybody else. You just be the best Santa Claus that you can be in High Point, North Carolina,’” Cliff recounts. “And that was the best advice he could have given me.”
“Now there are over 5,000 Santas around the world,” he says, “and I always say you have to have a pretty healthy ego to be a convincing Santa. You have to convince yourself that you are Santa before you can expect to convince children. And children deserve the most authentic and most caring and the most loving Santa possible.”
So with his formal training, his diploma, freshly dyed white hair and beard, and his new-found confidence, Cliff set to work as High Point’s resident Santa. From Castle McCulloch to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, Santa Cliff appeared at events and in parades all over North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee.
And Santa Cliff had to develop his own style as Santa – who he would be and the qualities he would portray.
“My nature is to be kind of quiet,” he says. “I’m not boisterous because that scares a lot of children. I’m not over the top.”
Instead, Santa Cliff prides himself on being gentle, faithful, approachable, and teachable.
“If I ever think that I know everything that I need to know – that I’m the all and all of Santas – then I think it’s time for me to hang up the suit,” he says. “It’s not fair to the children if I’m not faithful, approachable, and teachable.”
Santa Cliff is quick to tell children of Saint Nicholas, the real person who Santa Claus now symbolizes and celebrates. He shares with them the generosity that Saint Nicholas demonstrated as a response to faith in Jesus – a faith that Santa Cliff himself holds dear in his own heart.
But more than a few times, Santa Cliff has faced difficult requests and conversations with children.
He recalls one time in particular, years ago, when he was acting as Santa Claus at an event at the local High Point Chick-Fil-A. He noticed one boy standing away from the crowds, who was watching him but wouldn’t approach him.
“He was a heavy boy, like I’d been when I was his age,” Santa Cliff says. And when the room finally cleared, the boy came up to Santa Cliff to ask his Christmas wish. But after Santa Cliff asked the boy for what he most wanted for Christmas, the boy surprised him by answering he didn’t want anything.
“He pulled me to him and he whispered in my ear and he said, ‘Santa, all I want for Christmas is the children to quit picking on me and calling me names on the bus,’” Santa Cliff says.
“And my heart broke because I knew exactly how he felt. I had been that same little boy. I had been teased most of my life, even into my teenage years,” Santa Cliff says. But he remembered what he learned in Santa school, which is that Santa can’t promise anything.
“But I told him, ‘Santa understands how you feel, but I’m afraid that Santa can’t make the children change. But I’ll tell you what I can do. And I said, I have a little book here in my coat… and I’m going write your name in this book and I’m going to write down next to your name, what you just asked me for. And when I get home at night, and I say my prayers, I’m gonna talk to God and I’m going to tell him what you asked me for.”
And as the little boy thanked Santa Cliff and walked away, he says he heard God remind him, “Now Santa, that is a prayer you can keep.”
“He is a grown man by now, I’m sure,” Santa Cliff says of the little boy he met that night. “But I had that realization then that that was something that I could do, not only for the children that I would see but even the adults that have asked me for things. Santa Cliff has written down hundreds of thousands of names in what he calls his Santa’s Prayer Book, and he has prayed over each one.
Now at 72, Santa Cliff has modeled for the famous photographer, Larry Hersberger, posing for puzzles, prints, and gift bags sold nationwide at places like Hobby Lobby, Walmart, and more. He has led workshops, served as chairman at the national Celebrate Santa Convention, and was eventually inducted into the Order of the Long Leaf Pine – one of the highest honors an N.C. resident can receive. He was presented the award by the governor for “fifty years of service as Santa Claus to the children of North Carolina.”
“Being Santa Claus is the best retirement plan I could come up with,” Cliff jokes.
But despite all of these accolades and awards, if you sat down with Santa Cliff and asked him what kind of legacy he wants to leave at the end of his time as High Point’s Santa, he would answer remembering the man who started it all: his father.
Santa Cliff recalls an interview he gave to Jimmy Tomlin in the High Point Enterprise years ago, when Tomlin asked Cliff if he believed his dad would be proud of him.
“He loved Christmas so much himself,” Santa Cliff says of his father, “that I really do think he would be proud. A few weeks ago, I answered that question for myself.”
Santa Cliff, dressed in one of his Santa suits on the way home from an event, decided to make a stop to visit his father’s grave.
“I went to the tombstone, and I knelt down beside it. And I said a prayer and said, ‘Yep, I think, I think my dad would be proud of me.’”
Today, Santa Cliff speaks of the Snider name in High Point and how proud he is to be from a family that contributed so much to our city. He thinks of his own son and grandson, Robert Clifton Snider III and Robert Clifton Snider IV. He thinks of all the people he’s met over the years – the ones who have sat on his lap and told him their wishes and the ones who have mentored him along the way.
He says more than anything, he hopes the impact he has had on people extends beyond who Santa Cliff has been. It’s his greatest hope that his faith in the Lord will impact people to trust and follow as well.
“I want to honor the heritage of my family and I want someday – when people are thinking about who used to be Santa Claus – I’d like to be thought of as that’s who I was rather than that’s who I really am,” he says.
And it’s clear, that just as Santa Cliff has always been Santa Claus, the Santa Claus High Point knows and loves has always been Cliff Snider.
Discovering our High Points,
The HP Discovered Team
Feature Image | Maria West Photography