DRAPER — Memories of Christmases past can help light up the lives of adults each and every December. For Hugh Taylor, forming the foundation of those memories is a job he was born to do.
“I love the kids,” he said. “They’re pretty darn special.”
From the first tentative steps of a child peeking around a corner to get their first glimpse of him in all his glory, to the kids who can’t wait.
To file their requests — Taylor’s most at home sharing a smile with his youngest visitors.
“I was a ‘Designer Santa’ for two years,” he said, referring to those without the real beards. “I retired from my regular job, grew the beard, and it’s been cut off once since.”
Photographer Joanne Steveson recruited Taylor to put on the red suit and hat, and fill the vital role of one of Santa’s “helpers” years ago.
“I saw him in the 24th of July parade and he was a clown, but I thought, ‘He would be the best Santa,'” she said. “I Googled his clown name, finally found him. The Kaysville Library had had him come, and they gave me his name and number, and it’s been great ever since.”
Steveson says Taylor looked “just like the Coke Santa,” but it wasn’t his appearance that’s made him stand out to those clamoring for a spot on his lap — it’s the gifts he’s had to share.
“I feel like I’ve developed a rapport with the kids that works,” said Taylor. “You show them love, the fear goes away.”
Together, Taylor and Steveson have captured Yuletide days of yore for nearly 20 years. To them, taking photos on a Saturday morning isn’t just about creating family Christmas cards — it’s about making memories, and passing along a message.
“Families absolutely love him,” Steveson said. “One thing that I always appreciate is that he reminds them to be good and make good choices and good decisions. He loves them. And they know that.”
Taylor’s the most popular one of Santa’s helpers Steveson’s ever heard of. Many of those lining up for photos by his side are teenagers, and have been coming here since they could barely even walk.
“Each year when I send out an email to the families, people immediately get on and book,” Steveson said. “Many of them have a yearly tradition of doing this. That’s how they start their holidays — they’ll come and see Santa at my house, and that’s the beginning of the holiday season.”
But even for those who never miss the chance to pay a visit to Taylor, the first day of fall is still a bit early to spread holiday cheer — the reason this event is happening now is because this may be the last time anyone gets the chance.
“I was diagnosed with leukemia,” Taylor said. “On Valentine’s Day.”
“One of his neighbors is my cousin,” said Steveson. “She called me, and said ‘Did you hear about Santa?’ I said, ‘What do you mean, hear about Santa?’ My heart just sank.'”
Although Taylor says he’s trying to fight, he also says he was given a “short sentence.” So even though it meant bringing Christmas to September, they didn’t hesitate to plan a day of photos while he was still able.
“I told my son last night, I would rather have six months of quality life than two years sitting in a rocking chair,” said Taylor.
“I asked him, ‘How do you do it, knowing what the outcome’s going to be?'” Steveson said. “And he said ‘you don’t know how strong you can be until strong is the only option.’ We just feel very fortunate and blessed that we can have him come one more time.”
And so, in Taylor’s basement studio, surrounded by the smiles of children and the tears of their parents, Santa’s paying a visit before the leaves have even fallen.
“Within four hours, all 52 openings were filled,” Steveson said.
After all, Christmas isn’t just a day, it’s a frame of mind — and in the end, none of us are really gone, as long as there’s still people here to remember us.
“They remember me,” Taylor said, reflecting on all the children he’s given memories to. “They don’t have to, but they remember me.”