Pssst…I’ve got some Super Secret Santa Intel for You
My friends insist on visiting this Santa every year, and I wanted to know how the Lowell Showboat Santa became such an icon in our community.
The Story About how one man Became the Real Santa of Grand Rapids.
The first thing I learned is that contrary to popular belief, Santa lives right here in Lowell!
Have you seen him? When he isn’t welcoming children at the Lowell Riverwalk or waving to fans at the Grand Rapids Christmas Parade, Santa can be spotted at places like the Lowell Meijer or Spring Grove Variety Shop in his everyday clothes. And if he catches a child looking at him curiously, he will introduce himself and maybe even give them a candy cane from his leather bag.
You’ll know it’s Santa by his beautiful white beard.
It’s his white beard, actually, that turned Kraig Haybarker of Lowell into Santa in the first place.
Kraig says he has had a white beard forever. One Christmas, about 18 years ago, his beard had gotten longer than usual. Kraig was greeting guests at the Christmas Eve service at Lowell First United Methodist Church when a preschool boy came through.
“He reached up and shook my hand and just said, ‘Hi Santa,’ and kept right on going!” Kraig laughs. The kid didn’t even pause – he simply knew that Kraig was Santa!
So Kraig decided to let his beard grow for fun. Not to become Santa, but just to see what it would be like to have a Santa beard.
“I’ve always thought (my white hair) was a curse, but once I decided to become Santa it became a blessing,” he says.
The next summer he was at the Lowell Chamber of Commerce when Executive Director Liz Baker spotted his beautiful beard and asked if he’d be Santa for the city of Lowell that year.
A very surprised Kraig agreed.
We can all Thank Lowell (and Liz!) for Finding Santa Claus.
From a White Beard to Thousands of Children Visiting Him Each Christmas
“I hadn’t given it any thought at all!” says Kraig of the Chamber’s request. “I had a beard and white hair and that was it!”
Fortunately for Kraig, his wife Jody is a master seamstress. She sewed his first Santa suit.
And the moment he stepped onto the Lowell Showboat in 2002 to gather children’s Christmas wishes, there was no going back for Santa Claus.
Jody whipped up Kraig an indoor and outdoor Santa suit, and now has her own matching Mrs. Claus wardrobe. They moved the Santa room from the second floor of the showboat to the first floor so it would be more accessible and knocked down walls and fully decorated it for Christmas.
Kraig and Jody Haybarker Literally Brought Christmas to Lowell
And to West Michigan.
Kraig’s work has expanded to include Frederik Meijer Gardens, the Grand Rapids Santa Parade, and corporate and private events. Children eagerly waited in line to see him at Breton Village Mall, until it was torn down. As if that wasn’t a big enough blow, Santa’s world changed again when the Lowell Showboat was deemed unviable for visitors. After decades of Santa on the Showboat, Santa would now greet children at the Lowell Chamber of Commerce.
The extra room at the Chamber of Commerce had sat abandoned for years, the big beautiful stone fireplace all dusty and dirty.
Children weren’t sure about this, but Kraig and his wife were undeterred. They would make Christmas in Lowell magical, showboat or not.
They whipped that place into shape with a little bit of magic and a whole lot of elbow grease. The put an electric fire in the beautiful stone fireplace and scrubbed, painted and decorated until Christmas started shining through.
“We got a lot of comments from people that they thought this was nicer than the showboat,” says Kraig.
Mrs. Claus started keeping track of Lowell visitors years ago and Kraig says they average 1,000 or more, just in Lowell. Add in all his other visits with children around West Michigan, and that’s a lot of wishes to keep track of!
You Can’t Escape Your Destiny When You’re the Real Santa
“In my wildest dreams, even when I decided to let it grow long that first season, I never thought about becoming Santa,” says Kraig. “I was just (wondering) what it would look like AS a Santa.”
If you’ve ever met him, though, you’d know that this is his calling. There’s a reason he’s always had the white hair, and that that little boy saw him for who he really is. Because love and kindness has always been in Kraig’s heart.
“I love kids,” Santa says. “It’s the kids I think that make it so rewarding.”
Even when he’s not making lists and checking them twice, he’s blessing kids around Grand Rapids. GRKIDS readers have reported receiving letters from Santa after they write to him and he’s always ready to greet a child with a smile, not matter the time of year.
“He is by far, the best, and the real Santa,” says Kathy Shaffer of Grand Rapids.
If Santa notices a kid in public looking at him intently, or glancing curiously in his direction, he will go right up to them and ask mom or dad if he can chat with the child for a minute.
“You can tell that I’m Santa,” he smiles. He carries his Santa business cards year round, which lists his website where children can see pictures of him and Mrs. Claus.
Santa loves creating family memories that will last a lifetime. They can look back at their photo with Santa, or remember that time they spotted him at Meijer, and smile. He wishes everyone could keep the love and joy of Christmas going year round.
“That’s who I am and the reason behind what I love,” says Santa.
And that’s how I know that we have the real Santa Claus in Grand Rapids.
Santa’s 2019 Grand Rapids Schedule
Kraig has shared his 2019 schedule with us, and it should be appearing on his website soon, too.
Art Van/GR Jaycee’s Santa Parade | Saturday, Nov 23, 9 AM. (Parade goers can get pics with him immediately after the parade.)
Frederik Meijer Gardens | Every Tuesday from 5 – 8:30 PM, November 19 – Dec 17.
- Santa’s Cabin on the Riverwalk – 2:30 – 4 PM
- King Building on 4H Fairgrounds – 4:15 -5:45 PM
- Lowell Santa Parade – 6 PM
- Wednesdays, Dec 11 & 18, 5:30 – 7 PM
- Saturdays, Dec 14 & 21, 10:30 AM – 1 PM
- Friday, Dec 13, 5:30 – 7:30 PM: “We will have live Reindeer there, carriage rides, hot dogs and roasted chestnuts,” says Kraig.