You might think you know Santa Claus, but you’d be wrong.
He doesn’t live in the North Pole. He doesn’t ride in a sleigh and his name isn’t Kris Kringle.
His name is Donnie Carder and he lives in Gainesville.
During the year there’s a chance you might recognize his twinkling eyes and jolly laugh, but once the holidays roll around, it’s obvious.
He bleaches his beard and hair white and gets to work sitting in family photos and attending holiday parties. It’s his busiest time of year.
While he could make a fair profit off of his Santa duties, he doesn’t. Instead, every dollar he makes goes to purchasing toys, clothes and food for The Harlan Kentucky Christmas Project.
For 10 years, Carder has been traveling to Harlan with a truck and trailer full of toys to deliver to the children in the rural coal-mining community.
Carder said the idea to help the Harlan community came from a friend of his who delivered used toys to the area at Christmas time.
“I said, ‘Let me furnish the toys because Santa doesn’t give used toys. He gives new toys,’” Carder said.
All year, he and his family stock up on toys and gifts for the children of Harlan. Some businesses also donate to the project.
Carder works with William Baker, pastor of Blood Bought Church in Harlan, to find the needy families in the community.
Baker said it isn’t a difficult task.
There aren’t many options for employment outside of the coal mines, Baker explained, and several of the small mines have closed recently.
“It’s just coal mining here. Everything revolves around it. And it’s not at its peak, a lot of people are unemployed,” Baker said.
Baker has worked as a coal miner for the last 28 years and has been a pastor for 18 years. He said there aren’t many people in the town that he doesn’t know between the two jobs.
“I’ll get some inside info if someone is real needy,” Baker said.
The two men, Carder’s twin brother, Ronnie Carder, and Baker’s wife, Tina, set out early Monday morning to deliver gifts. By 9 p.m., they delivered toys to nearly 60 families from Everett to Closplint, Ky.
William Baker said it’s not easy work driving through the hills to some of the houses they visit. Most people have a few words to say about the bumpy ride.
“He’s kind and considerate. If we’d went to 12 o’clock that night, he wouldn’t have said a word. He never complains,” William Baker said of Donnie Carder.
Carder said the whole reason he keeps doing the project every year is because of the children.
“I try to tell the kids and really stress what Christmas is all about,” he said. “It’s about giving. It’s about Jesus. They accept it and they love it. I do, too. That’s my ministry.”
William Baker said a lot of the children have come to know Carder as the real Santa. He laughed as he recalled one little girl who was a bit skeptical when they drove into her yard bearing gifts.
“She said ‘I don’t believe in Santa Claus.’ Then he showed up and I seen her eyes sparkle. She asked if his beard was real,” William Baker said.
“She pulled it pretty hard and said ‘OK, you ain’t fake.’”
But Santa doesn’t limit his giving to just children; he helps the grown-ups, too. Carder said it’s funny how the adults react when they see him.
“Santa Claus doesn’t go up in that area where I go. There is no Santa at all. It’s unreal how even the adults want their picture taken with Santa,” Carder said.
Winter can be very cold in Harlan so the group passed out coats to the families as well as toys.
An older couple caring for their granddaughter were surprised to see that Santa had a present for them, too.
“They was just astonished. They said ‘Is this for me?’ I said ‘That’s Santa Claus, he don’t quit giving,’” Baker said. “They had tears in their eyes that someone thought enough to give them something.”
Tina Baker said Carder has been a tremendous blessing for Harlan and for the church. In the last few years the church’s membership has risen from about 10 to 100 people.
She said a lot of the churches in the area can be very strict and people are sometimes skeptical when they’re told that they are cared about.
She said the work that Carder does has encouraged people to get involved with the church.
Carder also makes a few other trips to Harlan during the year delivering school supplies and food, dressed casually. But his normal clothes don’t matter, everyone knows him when they see him.
“Some people don’t do it for the right reasons. Some do it because they’ve got to,” William Baker said. “But I can tell when someone is doing it out of their heart and loves it and that’s him.”