Just before Christmas 1973, members of the Hi-Y Club at Cherokee High School asked fifteen-year-old Tim Cavender to dress up as Santa and distribute candy during a school assembly.
The boy who would later be known as “Santa Tim” gave the club a firm “absolutely not.”
Looking back on the decision that ultimately shaped the trajectory of his life, Tim says he was hesitant to play Old Saint Nick because he dreaded his peers’ reaction. The reluctant sophomore relented, however, after a week of his friends’ begging, and though filled with anxiety, he donned the red suit for the first time.
He says when he walked down the aisles of the school auditorium as Santa, “Those students turned into children.” The experience ended on such a positive note that Tim decided to work as Santa in his hometown of Ball Ground, borrowing a suit until he saved up enough to buy his own, and beginning a tradition that would continue for the next fifty years of his life.
On Wednesday, December 28, 2022, however, Tim experienced a medical emergency that put into question whether he would ever get to perform as Santa again or celebrate the upcoming milestone of his fiftieth year as Santa Claus.
A Serious Setback
Ball Ground’s beloved Santa was at home in his garage when he passed out and fell. When he regained consciousness, he called his wife, Pam, to help. After helping him up, Pam called 911. Members of Cherokee County Fire & Emergency Services [CCFES] responding to the call recognized Tim right away, not solely for his role as Santa Claus, but also as the acting CCFES public information officer, a position he held for nearly twenty years before retiring in May 2023. Following assessment by emergency personnel, the Cavenders had to decide whether Tim should go to the hospital for further evaluation. When he chose to go to the emergency room, Pam knew the situation was serious. Tim was diagnosed as having suffered a stroke, but what doctors found while investigating his stroke came as even more of a shock. Tim was diagnosed with lung cancer.
Fortunately for Tim and his family and for the community who adores him as Santa, the type of cancer was mild and treatable without radiation or chemotherapy. While the stroke and cancer diagnoses slowed him down, they did not diminish his spirit, his love for spreading joy, or the twinkle in his eye when he talks about bringing Christmas magic to children in Cherokee County and beyond for half a century.
Visit Santa Tim inside Santa’s Workshop at the picturesque Mayberry Acres on Morgan Road in Canton.
March of the Toys
Indeed Tim lights up when he gets the chance to talk about his job as the jolly Kris Kringle. Reflecting on his years as Santa Claus, he says, “The role kept evolving into something larger than I ever expected.”
Included in this evolution is the annual March of the Toys parade, which brings Christmas revelers from near and far to line Gilmer Ferry Road in Ball Ground. The event is one of the largest Christmas parades in North Georgia benefiting Toys for Tots, an initiative founded in 1947 by the United States Marine Corps Reserve, which distributes toys to children whose families cannot afford to purchase holiday gifts.
“I can’t tell you how valuable he’s been to our community,” Ball Ground Mayor Rick Roberts declares, “He puts together the biggest gathering we have in our city every year, and he serves as Santa Claus. Tim handles it all.”
This year the eighth annual parade marches down Gilmer Ferry Road on Friday, December 1, at 7:00 p.m., with former Atlanta Braves pitcher Joseph “Jo-Jo” Reyes as grand marshal. Santa Tim encourages attendees to arrive early because the event regularly welcomes thousands of merry parade-goers. After the parade Santa and Mrs. Claus will be available for photos in City Park.
Parade attendees are asked to bring a new, unwrapped toy to the event and place the donations in collection boxes available at City Park and along the parade route.
In addition to visiting Santa Tim in person, you can see him on screen as Saint Nicholas in two films: Charlie’s Christmas Wish, filmed in Canton and released in 2020, and Christmas at the Grey Horse Inn, expected to be released this year and produced in part by Blue Heron Films and Talking Rock Studios, both based in nearby Pickens County.
In 2014 Tim found himself honored among an elite group as an inductee to the International Santa Claus Hall of Fame, a project dedicated to preserving “the historical documentation of the many men and women who have greatly contributed to the legend of Santa Claus.”
Other well-known International Santa Claus Hall of Fame inductees include Mickey Rooney, for his voicework in five Christmas films throughout his eight-decade acting career; Ed Asner, best-known as Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and as Santa in 2003’s Elf; and Edmund Gwenn, the iconic Santa in the Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street.
Tim was also invited to join the Knights of St. Nicholas, an organization focused on the values and morals of those who portray Santa Claus.
Love at First Sight: The Mrs. Claus
Santa met his match more than two decades ago when she walked into a beauty pageant in Woodstock for which he was performing as emcee. He recounts the experience: “She caught my eye immediately. I turned to the woman next to me and asked ‘Who’s that lady that just walked in?’ and she said, ‘That’s my cousin, Pam.’”
Tim’s love went unrequited for more than three years until Pam’s cousin played matchmaker, reaching out to Tim to let him know Pam was then single. While Pam says she wasn’t looking for love at the time, love found her anyway. Tim calls Pam the true love of his life and says, “She’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me next to my salvation.”
Pam says she knew early in the relationship that he would want her to be Mrs. Claus, but says she’s “not a traditional Mrs. Claus.” An image consultant with a background in journalism, Pam had a vision for her portrayal of Mrs. Claus that Tim calls “elegant.”
Pam designed her dress, which was crafted and sewn by a professional theatrical costumer. She also had a vision for Tim’s portrayal of Santa Claus, helping him craft his image. Tim wears a theatrical-quality beard and custom-made suit, including real leather boots with red snowflakes on them.
These little details make a big difference in the eyes of the children who visit Tim and Pam. One parent recounted to the couple that after visiting Santa Tim, her son remarked that he knew that Tim was the real Santa Claus “because of his boots.”
Tim says, “I have a very particular way of portraying Santa,” to which Pam adds, “he’s got a peaceful way with children,” and describes him as a gentle giant. Tim’s demeanor and soft-spoken “Ho-ho-ho” cause children to gravitate to him and share their Christmas wishes with ease.
“When my children were little, back in the 1980s and early 1990s, Tim always dropped in at the Kiwanis Christmas party as Santa,” reminisces Rebecca Johnston of Canton. “When my daughter turned three, we had Tim come to her birthday party to let the children tell him their most secret wishes of what they wanted for Christmas. Even as a young Santa, Tim displayed a patience, kindness, and love for the little ones that even the real Santa would envy.”
One of the most memorable Christmas wishes throughout Tim’s fifty years as Santa Claus came from four-year-old Beau Bellinger, a little girl from Forsyth County who visited Santa in Ball Ground in December 2009.
When Tim asked Beau what she would like for Christmas, she looked down at first and then replied, “I want you to bring my daddy home for Christmas.” Although caught off-guard, he continued talking with Beau and learned that her father, Army Staff Sergeant Tim Bellinger, was a soldier deployed overseas in Afghanistan.
Hearing the request, Beau’s mother, Annie, whispered to Mrs. Claus that the Army was indeed planning to send Beau’s father home in time for Christmas, but the little girl didn’t know yet. What followed was a magical idea by Tim Cavender, who arranged to visit the Bellingers’ home on the day Tim Bellinger returned home.
When Beau returned home from school one afternoon, Santa Tim was waiting inside to grant her Christmas wish while her father hid outside, waiting to surprise her.
Santa asked Beau to close her eyes and repeat the wish, “I want my daddy home for Christmas.” When she did, the doorbell rang and in walked her father. Beau’s eyes widened in surprise, and she ran to her father who scooped her up and wished her a merry Christmas, and a happy birthday as well.
The magical moment stands out to Tim as one of the most unforgettable in the role he says he’s been blessed with. The moment also stands out to a now eighteen-year-old Beau Bellinger, who says, “I am forever thankful for him and his whole family for what they did for my family and me.” She shares the Cavenders have continued to be part of her life, and were there for her even when her mother passed away in 2015.
A Wonderful Life
When someone dedicates fifty years to a singular purpose, the impact is sure to be felt. Indeed, the impact of Tim Cavender’s legacy of bringing magic and joy to the young and young at heart has been felt throughout Cherokee County. Reflecting on the milestone of his golden anniversary as Santa Claus, Tim says, “It’s been a wonderful life, as George Bailey would say.”
*In the November/December 2023 edition of Enjoy Cherokee Magazine, the date for the March of the Toys Parade was incorrectly listed. This event takes place on Friday, December 1, 2023.
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Jaye and her family moved to Cherokee County in 2021 and have embraced the charming community that now feels like home. In addition to being managing editor for the magazine, she is also a freelance resume writer and graphic designer, and was editor of her school newspaper, The Blueprint.