Joe McGee was very close to his older brother, David. They did everything together. They hunted, fished, golfed, and even started a business together. David coached Joe’s sports teams when he was growing up, and they worked together for 22 years.
When David’s twin granddaughters were born prematurely in August 2007, their future looked bleak. As summer turned to fall, David let his beard and hair grow. He visited often, wearing a Santa hat. As the visits continued, he decided to enroll in Santa School in Midland, Michigan. He loved bringing joy to kids.
But David faced many health challenges, and in late 2010, he spent fifty-five days in intensive care. Joe stayed by his side the entire time until a heart attack ultimately took David’s life.
After David passed away, Joe knew he wanted to do something to honor his brother’s memory. His wife, Dawn, encouraged him to don the red suit and continue David’s legacy, and Joe thought about it. In April 2012, he discovered he had prostate cancer, and his research led him to The University of Florida Health Proton Therapy Institute.
“When I got there, I’d see these kids, bald-headed, playing in the lobby,” he said. “It moved me to tears.”
In September 2012, Joe finished his last treatment and let his beard grow. He attended Santa School in Gatlinburg, consulted local Santas, and began purchasing the expensive attire that quality Santas wear. For example, a suit costs between $1000-$5,000, while the boots cost $700, and the belt $400. During the 2013 Christmas season, the fun began.
“I have been touched by so many people. I had become cynical.
I quit watching the news. But I discovered there are a lot of good people out there, and the world isn’t as bad a place as
we sometimes think it is.”
Today he’s known as the Real Deal Santa, and he’s busy meeting children and listening to Christmas wishes as the big day approaches. Formerly of Fayetteville, Georgia, and now living in Senoia, Georgia, he makes roughly forty appearances each Christmas season and donates every penny of his proceeds to charity. Last year, his wife Dawn shared, they donated $35,000. (see www.therealdealsanta.com). To date, over $120,000 has been raised for the kids battling cancer at UFHPTI and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.
Playing Santa has become his passion, and he’s very good at it. He is driven by his love for children, his desire to bring joy to young cancer patients, and his dedication to raise money to fund treatment and patient support services. Dawn often dresses up as Mrs. Claus and appears with him.
“There’s not a shadow of a doubt I know I’ve been called to do this,” he said.
Playing Santa has changed Joe’s life.
“I have been touched by so many people. I had become cynical. I quit watching the news. But I discovered there are a lot of good people out there, and the world isn’t as bad a place as we sometimes think it is.”
And the kids touch Joe’s heart. His Santa brings a smile to their faces, yet they often bring tears to his eyes.
“Nothing I’ve ever been given comes close to the gift I get when I look in these kids’ eyes. It’s unbelievable to be able to see them when they’re sitting in your lap with magic in their eyes.”
In many cases, the child sitting in his lap may not be here next Christmas, and that moment is Santa’s opportunity to bring cheer to a sick boy or girl.
“I was doing a Delta event, and one little boy who came to me was gone a month later. We have to make some sort of positive impact when we can.”
Santa Joe once visited a patient at a Florida hospital, and she had been fighting her cancer battle for a long time. As the mom held her hand and as Santa listened and encouraged, Joe removed a bell from his boot, presented it to the girl and said, “Every time you ring this bell, know Santa is praying for you.”
The children make all sorts of requests, but one child asked, “Santa, can you heal my momma? She just had surgery.”
He replied, “Those are the kind of gifts I’d like to be able to give the most, but I can’t do those kinds of things. But I can pray and ask God to heal your momma.”
As Joe strives to bring joy to a child’s Christmas, he’s all about the real meaning of Christmas.
“Playing Santa is not about me. It’s about what the Lord’s doing. I’ll ask a child, ‘You know the reason for the season, don’t you?’ and then I’ll tell him or her “Jesus is born.’”
Joe stated, “You have no idea how many people don’t know the reason for Christmas.” This Santa does and he reminds people every chance he gets: “. . . the Father sent the Son to be the Savior of the world.” (I John 4:14 KJV).