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Maury Schuh, also known as “Santa Sarge,” is a military veteran and professional “real-bearded Santa” operating in northeast Mississippi and specializing in working with children on the autism spectrum. Photo by Nick Cardello Photography

Person of the Day | Maury Schuh, Tupelo’s ‘Santa Sarge’

Maury Schuh had outgrown Santa Claus by the time he became a teenager in his hometown of Tupelo, Miss., as all children inevitably do. Saint Nick remained a presence in Schuh’s life, however, through his parents Ed and Shirley Schuh, who around that time took up donning costumes to play Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus on behalf of the Tupelo Public School District. For roughly 20 years, the couple delighted children with gifts and entertainment.

During that time, Maury Schuh and his wife Susan Schuh had a son of their own named Louis Schuh. One December afternoon in the 1980s when Louis was about 18 months old, Schuh’s parents took their grandson with them to one of their events at Thomas Street Elementary, dressing him as one of Santa’s elves to complement their own costumes. The photos the three of them took together, with Louis seated on his grandfather’s lap in full Santa apparel, became one of Schuh’s most treasured items and set him on the path to take up the red suit himself, eventually culminating in him becoming known as “Santa Sarge.”

From Deployments to Santa Sarge

Schuh entered into military service in 1979, whereupon he served as a Russian linguist with the military intelligence division in addition to his memberships in the National Guard and the Army Reserves. Whenever he wasn’t on deployment, Schuh worked as a D.A.R.E. instructor in Lee County in northern Mississippi. He also led a multi jurisdictional narcotics task force in the same county and was a member of a DUI task force for the Jackson metro.

The first time Schuh donned a Santa suit for himself was in 2000, after he had left active service in the military. He was working as a dog trainer on behalf of PetSmart and agreed to take part in a charity event benefiting Tupelo animal shelters in which he played the part of Saint Nick like his father before him.

Maury Schuh has appeared before children as Santa Claus since 2007, when he visited orphans in Kosovo as part of “Operation Santa Sarge.” Photo courtesy Maury Schuh

Only a year later, following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York City, Schuh re-entered active duty for another six years. It was during a deployment in Kosovo, a nation in the Balkans bordering Serbia, that he finally got the chance to come into what would become his true Santa persona.

In Kosovo, Schuh agreed to take part in a United Nations-led program called “Operation Santa Sarge,” in which the UN collected donated items and had volunteer soldiers distribute them to schools and orphanages for children affected by conflicts in the region. Schuh once more adopted the Santa Claus mantle as a participant in the program.

“There was such a powerful need to help all of those children wherever they may have come from, and even children who had come from Muslim families knew about Santa Claus as much as orthodox Christians did,” Schuh says. “People from all around, all backgrounds, wanted to help these children who needed things like clothing or simple toys. Since I was a senior non-commissioned army officer at the time, people started referring to me as ‘Santa Sarge’ or ‘Big Sarge’ afterward, and I decided that would be the title I’d take up for myself whenever I put on the costume after that.”

Sensitive Santas: ‘You’re a Friend’

After Schuh retired in 2018, he decided to take his work as a “professional real-bearded Santa” to the next level and enrolled in a number of educational programs specifically dedicated to training Santa Claus performers, which Schuh refers to as “Santa School.” Some of the programs he took part in included the Northern Lights Santa Academy, the International University of Santa Claus, the Worldwide Santa Claus Network and the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas.

“Imagine, if you will, some 800 bearded men gathering together in places like Atlanta, Ga., dressed in full Santa getup for training with onsite instructors, all focused on how to play Santa Claus,” Schuh says of his training. “You have to learn the right way to take photos with children, what to say when you’re interacting with them, the trends you need to keep up with, how to rent and haul a sleigh, even the right way to bleach your hair and beard for the right Santa look.”

“Sensitive Santas like me are there to give those children the Christmas experience they deserve, whether that means taking a family picture with them, taking off the hat and coat and sitting down to play on the floor with them or even just giving them a friendly wave if that’s what they’re comfortable with,” Maury Schuh says. Photo courtesy Maury Schuh

Today, Schuh is one of a small number of professional Santas operating in the southeastern United States who are certified as “Sensitive Santas.” Sensitive Santas specialize in working with children on the autism spectrum, who Schuh says often may not want to be touched or get too close to other people. Schuch makes appearances at five different autism centers and three hospitals around the state. He also frequently visits infants at North Mississippi Medical Center and makes appearances for seniors in the hospital’s hospice-care unit.

“Sensitive Santas like me are there to give those children the Christmas experience they deserve, whether that means taking a family picture with them, taking off the hat and coat and sitting down to play on the floor with them or even just giving them a friendly wave if that’s what they’re comfortable with,” Schuh says. “You have to get on their level and do whatever you need to do to make them realize you’re a friend and not a danger to them.”

Schuh offers his Santa Sarge services within Tupelo and neighboring areas such as Oxford, Starkville, Iuka, Fulton, Aberdeen, Corinth, Booneville, Houston, Columbus, Ripley, New Albany, West Point, Holly Springs, Starkville and all surrounding areas.

In addition to his usual appearances as Santa Claus for children, Maury Schuh also makes appearances for seniors in the hospice-care unit at North Mississippi Medical Center. Photo courtesy Maury Schuh

In addition to his usual Santa work, Schuh works with local businesses in Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee to appear in television commercials or make onsite appearances. Proceeds from these jobs and his many “pictures with Santa” appearances around the state mostly go back into his Santa work, which includes expenses such as background checks and insurance, sleigh rentals, up to date gifts for children, and custom tailoring for his Santa suits—with higher quality suits often costing up to $1,000.

“As a retired senior, it’s hard to keep up with all this on my own,” Schuh says. “However, whenever I don the suit I become a different person and forget all about my issues, and I’m no longer Maury Schuh: I’m Santa Claus. There’s no worries or cares and everything is about creating a special Christmas moment for these children.”

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