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Dec 2005/Jan 2006
Ho, Ho, History!
Civil War Santa Kevin Rawlings Brings Christmas Past to the Present.

By Teri Johnson + photos by Youngblood Studios

• • •

This time of year, Kevin Rawlings rarely goes anywhere without drawing curious glances. “They look at me and say, ‘Is it really Santa?’” Kevin says with a smile. His long white beard and twinkling blue eyes make you wonder, even while he’s wearing shorts on a sweltering August afternoon. But when the Sharpsburg resident dons his patriotic Civil War Santa costume, he can leave you seeing stars — and stripes.

For 49-year-old Kevin, playing a vintage Santa is a way to embrace his love of history. The former Social Security Administration employee wanted to portray a Santa Claus no one else had ever represented, so he began researching the concept of Christmas before and during the Civil War by studying letters, diaries and manuscripts. (His research culminated with the 1996 publication of his book, We Were Marching on Christmas Day.)  He and his wife, Mimi, then created a patriotic Santa suit featuring a blue jacket with white stars and red-and-white striped pants in 1989 for the first memorial illumination program at Antietam National Battlefield.

A stickler for historical authenticity, Kevin was a consultant for the movie Gods and Generals, and he is participating in an upcoming project for The Discovery Channel about the history of Christmas and Santa Claus. While his portrayal of the Civil War Santa has always been accurate, Kevin's appearance hasn't always resembled that of St. Nick. When he started out, his beard was naturally red, so he used theatrical makeup to create the Jolly Old Elf’s traditional white facial hair. Now he only has to touch up his moustache, eyebrows and hair.

This season, Kevin will pull a new impression out of his bag with the debut of his 1848 Knickerbocker Santa. His costume will include green knee breeches, buckle shoes, striped stockings, a red vest and a brown coat with fur trim. In addition to his patriotic and Knickerbocker Santas, Kevin also dresses in a traditional red wool suit for appearances at the Washington County Free Library and other venues. Washington County children’s librarian Jeff Ridgeway praised Kevin’s depiction of St. Nick and his wonderful way with children.  

Maybe Kevin really can work some Christmas magic, especially when it comes to children.

“When kids see the twinkle in Kevin’s eye, they look at him and say ‘Hmmm.’ Those who have their doubts doubt a little longer,” says Cathy Beeler, chief of resource education and visitor services at Monocacy National Battlefield in Frederick, Md. Cathy credits Kevin with stimulating interest in the park when it opened in 1991. She was trying to figure out a way to beef up visitation at Monocacy when she noticed Kevin in costume at the Antietam illumination. He accepted her invitation to the Frederick battlefield — and his appearance worked wonders. “We had people lined up out our sidewalk to come sit on Santa’s lap,” Cathy says. She notes that Kevin's first Monocacy appearance was special in another way: He and Mimi had just learned they were expecting their first child, Elspeth, who is now 13.

Another of Kevin’s more memorable experiences as Santa also occurred at Monocacy. A mother came in to warn Kevin that her son was a real hellion; the week before he had ripped off Santa’s beard at the mall. When the boy took his place on Santa’s lap, “The first thing he did was reach for my beard,” Kevin recalls. “His eyes grew wide, and he whispered, ‘It’s the real one.’”

It seems that no matter how old you are, Santa’s magic continues to captivate.

“A fair amount of adults want to sit on my lap and get their pictures taken with me,” Kevin says. He spent time as a shopping mall Santa to gain experience, and still likes to check out his competition. When he does, people want to know why he’s away from his chair. “I tell them I’m observing my helpers to see what kind of job they’re doing,” he says, his blue eyes sparkling.

Need to Know…
Kevin will give a presentation about Christmas and the Civil War at GAR Hall, 53 E. Middle St. in Gettysburg, Pa., at 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 10. The cost is $15, which includes refreshments. Reservations are required; call 717-337-1334 by Dec. 8.

Kevin will appear as Santa Claus at Washington County Free Library, 100 S. Potomac St. in Hagerstown, from 6:30–8 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 15. Admission is free. For information, call 301-739-3250.

Kevin’s season starts in November and might include several appearances in a day. His 2005 schedule (some dates for which were booked two years in advance) includes: Port Columbus Civil War Naval Center in Columbus, Ga.; Shippen Manor in Oxford, N.J.; Fort Ward Museum in Alexandria, Va.; Chatham Manor in Fredericksburg, Va.; and Surratt House Museum in Clinton, Md. He also addresses historical societies and roundtables, giving a slide show presentation that illustrates the history of Christmas. To schedule an appearance, call 301-432-7019.

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