Editor's note: Parents and caregivers, please note that the following story contains reference to the long-held beliefs and traditions celebrating Santa Claus.
MURPHYSBORO — For nearly half a century, Murphysboro resident Michael Singleton has pulled on a red suit jacket and pants, and red hat and gloves — red until so many children seemed to object, and he opted for white — all with the idea of providing joy to children and adults throughout the area at Christmastime.
This year, he's planning, putting his trust in God, and hoping that despite his illness, he will be able to continue making his Christmas rounds as jolly old St. Nick. Two years ago, he was diagnosed with liver cancer and given two years to live, his daughter Lynn Singleton said. She said the cancer has progressed to Stage 4, although he counters and says Stage 2; Lynn Singleton said her father's doctors have said it's up to his body to determine the final outcome.
Michael Singleton said he started working as a Santa Claus when he was 19 years old and had taken his own children to see a Santa Claus. He has four adult children, daughters Elizabeth Singleton, Shellie Scholz and Lynn Singleton, and a son, Michael Jr.
"I started because when I took my kids to see Santa Claus, the guy stunk to high heaven," wreaking of cigar smoke and beer, Singleton said. So, he got his own suit and treated his own children.
Word eventually got around that Santa Claus was in town, and he was asked to portray the jolly old elf for friends and neighbors' children, and even strangers' children.
That outreach eventually led to him working as Santa with local schools, with a Murphysboro Evening With Santa, the Shop With A Hero program and personal visits to individuals' homes.
Singleton is a staple with the Fraternal Order of Police’s Shop With a Hero Christmastime program, and has been for at least 20 years, FOP President Ron Stanton, a corporal with the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department, said.
Stanton said he's looking forward to Singleton joining the fun and fellowship on Dec. 9, when FOP members meet at the Murphysboro Walmart to shop with children.
“He’s just always been the type of person that’s involved in outreach and community organizations,” Cpl. Stanton said. “It’s just the type of person that he is. He’s there every year — has a smile on his face; the kids adore him, and he just loves to be around them. I think he looks forward to it every year.”
Studied Santa Claus
Singleton said he delved into the role, learning all he could about Santa and his reindeer.
He has no idea how many children he's worked with. He estimates between 10,000 to 20,000; his daughter Lynn Singleton says the number could be closer to 1 million.
There were times when as many as 500 children attended some of the events. Singleton's wife, Lola, who died earlier this year, went with him on many of those trips.
Also during the Christmas holiday, he might be invited to visit children in a family or elsewhere, what he calls "personals." He estimated he did about 40 to 50 of those each Christmas season.
All without pay, even though people tried to pay, he said. Many times, he used some of his own money to buy gifts.
Like the time in Christmas 2015, when he learned of a family in Grand Tower with several children who had nothing coming for Christmas, and he went shopping for them.
He used to work as a construction laborer until he fell from a 22-foot scaffolding, shattering several bones in his right foot and leg, disabling him.
The experiences have been many, including one little boy who was so excited that he wet his pants — and Singleton's Santa suit, resulting in a pool of urine in one of his Santa boots.
He said it's important to be clean in one's Santa outfit.
"You sweat in the suit pretty hard," he said.
Or, the time he made a personal visit to the home of a family, whose young son opened the door and in his surprise, kept yelling Santa, before he let out an expletive. The boy's father, a pastor, was too embarrassed and apologetic, but Singleton was amused.
One thing, though, that he learned along the way was that children and the persona of Santa Claus have a special relationship, a special confidence.
"They tell Santa things they don't even tell their parents," he said.
One such conversation led to a child's guardian being charged with abuse, he said.
Singleton remembered a little blonde girl who he said buried her head in his chest and asked why he — as Santa Claus — had forgotten her the previous year; he looked into it later and found out that she didn't get anything for Christmas and brought her a gift that year.
Perhaps the biggest Christmas wish is the one that his family has for him, that he is around for many, many more Christmases.
"It's up to God," Singleton said. "It's up to God."