KINGSBURG — During his 15 years as Santa, Dean Youngblood has heard it all as far as kids and their choices of Christmas gifts.

However, every once and awhile, even a veteran Santa Claus gets a surprise.

“I had this one little girl one time,” Youngblood said. “She sat on my lap and she said, ‘I want a yellow and black Bumblebee Camaro with a 450 engine.’ She was only like 6. The kids say the funniest things. And that’s what I get the joy of.”

Youngblood, 49, first started playing Santa Claus, rented suit and all, with his kids when his sons were 2 and 5 and his daughter was a newborn. He purchased his own suit nearly 15 years ago when he lived in Sanger. The Rotary Club there asked him to be Santa for an annual Christmas dinner for seniors. He has played Santa for the program every year since.

When Youngblood was still living in Sanger, Jess Chambers, then Kingsburg Chamber of Commerce executive director, was in a bind. Chambers needed a Santa Claus and recalled that Youngblood – his cousin by marriage – had a Santa suit of his own. That first job in Kingsburg nearly 12 years ago turned into a permanent one.

“We brought him in with his rosy cheeks and belly and all,” Chambers said. “He did a terrific job and the rest of it is history. He’s a super person.”

When Youngblood is not dressed in the red suit, he is the executive pastor of The Potter’s House Church in Kingsburg. He just celebrated his 10-year anniversary.

In October, Santa starts scheduling events and usually makes 20 appearances during the Christmas season, Youngblood said. Santa visits local businesses and the library, and schedules home visits by special request.

Youngblood has been Santa for Sandy Gonsalves’ Christmas Eve family gathering for the last four years.

“My family always has a Santa and it’s hard to get someone you trust,” Gonsalves said. “He’s so good. He’s so nice. He sings with the kids. He’s the best Santa we’ve ever had and we’ve had a lot. Our family is pretty big. The kids and grandkids are in their 50s down to 5 years old. He’s the sweetest man. He filled the shoes for us.”

Santa is quite the fashionista. With the money he makes every year, Youngblood turns around and invests it in new suits and accessories for the following season. In 15 years he said he has gone through three suits.

He started with a traditional Santa Claus look with buttons and fur down the middle, then upgraded to a more European look. At the tree lighting festival, he dresses in a workshop Santa outfit with a vest and low-top boots which people seem to like, Youngblood said.

Youngblood continues to work closely with the Sanger Police Department. Youngblood goes door to door with the police and delivers toys and boxes of food to families in need. Santa and Christmas have a special meaning to Youngblood as he has known times of hardship himself.

“I’ve been there through ministry,” Youngblood said. “You know, ‘walk by faith.’ I didn’t have anything. I know how it feels for someone to bless you in the holiday season. I’m getting emotional.” He paused to gather his thoughts. “I wish I can do it as long as I can – as long as they’ll have me.”

Over a decade of playing Santa has given Youngblood dozen of stories and fond memories. One of his most memorable encounters was with a 96-year-old woman whose only wish was to take a picture with Santa. Youngblood visited her at home and her lifelong wish came true.

“That broke my heart,” Youngblood said. “That family has been inviting me every year since.”

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