• Washington Post

Deaf Santa Travels the Country so Deaf Kids Can be Heard at Christmastime

Anthony Mowl
Greta Mowl enjoys a visit with Santa Charles Graves at Gaylord National Resort in Maryland this year.

When Charles Graves was 5 years old, his parents took him and his four siblings to see Santa Claus at Randolph Air Force Base near San Antonio.

Graves was diagnosed as deaf when he was 3 months old, and although he couldn’t hear Santa’s voice, he was looking forward to meeting him and sitting on his lap, he said, recalling that afternoon in 1975.

He said he patiently watched his brothers and sisters interact with Santa as they each told him what they hoped to find under the Christmas tree that year.

Then it was his turn.

“I was so excited, but when I stepped up to Santa, he dropped his smile and gave me a blank face,” he said. “He had no idea how to interact with me.”

“At that moment, I felt like the only deaf person in the entire world,” added Graves, who communicates through American Sign Language and is now 53.

“Why was I different from the others?” he said. “That memory stayed with me and is something I can’t forget, no matter how much I try.”

More than four decades later, Graves found a way to turn that sad Santa visit into a way to help others.

Graves now travels around the country and offers children the experience of visiting Santa and sitting on his lap – and communicating what they’d like for Christmas – no matter if they can hear or not.

Graves’s Santa career started after he decided to grow a beard and people in his town of New Braunfels, Tex., told him he would make a great Saint Nick. In 2019, he accepted an invitation to play Santa at an annual Shields for Kids holiday event organized by the San Antonio Police Department for children in need, he said, noting that a sign language interpreter helps him to communicate with hearing kids.

That led to other Santa gigs, including visits to Gaylord National Resort in National Harbor, Md., last year and this year on Dec. 13. The hotel chain paid his expenses for both Maryland visits and trips this year to four other Gaylord resorts in Texas, Tennessee, Colorado and Florida.

“By putting me in Santa’s chair in major locations in public, we’re validating that Santa Claus can be deaf,” Graves said.

When he bought his first Santa suit, he felt a bit reluctant and wondered if he was doing the right thing, he confessed.

“I was unsure it was for me, but my wife, Kari, encouraged me and felt it would be an opportunity to make up for my childhood, and she was right,” he said. “I put on the red suit for the first time, and it fit like nothing else I ever wore.”

Graves works as a night residential educator at the Texas School for the Deaf, but he and his wife, a graphic designer who is also deaf, soon decided to take on additional gigs as Mr. and Mrs. Claus, he said.

“It’s been incredible watching Charles transform into Santa Claus, but it’s also been a very natural transition for him,” said Kari Graves, 47. “His personality is exactly the same whether he’s wearing the suit or not. It’s just who he is.”

Charles Graves said that in 2022, he graduated from the International University of Santa Claus, and he and Kari decided to start their business, Deaf Santa Claus, that same year. They wanted to give deaf children a more positive experience with Santa than Graves had at age 5.

Communicating through sign language is transforming for kids who have wondered how Santa will know what they want for Christmas, Graves said.

“The children are finally able to ask the burning questions, [like] ‘What’s your favorite cookie?’ that they can’t ask a hearing Santa,” he said.

“It bothers me sometimes that when I connect with a child, this might be the first and only time that child will have a conversation with Santa Claus,” he added. “We try to make the most of every moment to create a memory that lasts a very long time.”

Whether children can hear or not, they’re all welcome to meet Graves and sit on his lap, he said.

“Being Deaf Santa Claus means that I’m deaf – it does not mean we see only deaf children,” Graves said. “All children whether they are deaf or hearing, see me simply as Santa Claus.”

“They accept me for who I am and never question why I’m deaf,” he added.

This year, about 20 families with deaf children were among those hosted by Gaylord National Resort for free photos with Graves, said Gary Buchanan, a spokesperson for Gaylord Hotels.

“He was such a big hit last year that we really wanted Santa Charles and Mrs. Claus to make their special visits at all of our Gaylord hotels this year,” Buchanan said.

Anthony Mowl
Julietta Farias, left, and Carmine Farias both hear, and their mother, Tiffany Saccente, is deaf. Saccente said she enjoyed watching her kids sign what they wanted for Christmas to Santa Charles Graves this year.

Tiffany Saccente, a deaf mom from D.C., said she brought her two hearing children to the resort so they could sign their names and Christmas wish lists to Graves and she’d be able to understand their conversation.

Both kids are expert signers, she said, noting that Julietta Farias, 7, and Carmine Farias, 9, enjoyed their time with Santa, especially when he asked them to guess what his favorite cookie was.

“They guessed Chips Ahoy or Oreos, but he hinted that he liked homemade, so they told him chocolate chip,” Saccente said in emailed comments to The Washington Post. “Santa eventually told them that he loves oatmeal raisin, because when he gets full, he gives the rest to his reindeer.”

Saccente said she and her children were charmed by Graves’s sense of humor.

“My partner is also deaf, and we never really understood anything that went on between the kids and Santa every year we took them,” she said. “But this experience was the opposite. I actually got emotional and teared up at the end.”

Graves said that’s exactly what he’d hoped for when he started suiting up in red.

“There are many deaf parents who are understanding their hearing children converse with Santa for the first time,” he said. “Those same deaf parents grew up without a deaf Santa Claus experience.”

“They’re creating their first special Christmas memory with Santa Claus as adults, and those moments stay with me,” he said.

Anthony Mowl
Charles Graves suited up as Saint Nick for a Christmas parade in Lockhart, Tex., last year.