On a recent Friday, a young Fredericksburg couple and a handful of family members gathered downtown in Market Square for a wedding.
Briana Harrold and Daryl Hall smiled lovingly at each other between moments of nervousness as they waited for the marriage commissioner to arrive.
And suddenly, there he was, the bells on his black boots ringing, his thick red suit and hat shimmering and a deep “Ho Ho Ho!” resounding in the cold morning air.
Then this Santa Claus—who some say looks a lot like Lee Milstead of Spotsylvania County—officiated a short, sweet ceremony. The proclamation that they were now husband and wife were barely out of his mouth when nearby church bells pealed the hour, adding an extra touch of magic.
“We didn’t set out to get married by Santa, but the first officiant we called pointed out that he could do that for us,” said Harrold, who grew up in the Bronx and is now an art teacher and track coach at Brooke Point High School. “We thought it would be fun and definitely a memorable way to be married.”
Hall, who works in information technology locally, pointed out that another marriage ceremony would follow the next day in front of a larger group of friends and family.
“But this one with Santa is the one that marries us legally,” he said.
St. Nick concurred. The papers he’ll file with the court are what certify the union.
So who is this Santa Claus who presides over local weddings? He is indeed Lee Milstead,
He served a term on the Spotsylvania Board of Supervisors and had a photography business in the county. Now he works in promotions for Regal Cinemas.
He explained that it was a specific wedding photography gig that led to becoming a marriage commissioner, one where he witnessed a bride and a minister getting into an argument during a rehearsal.
“She came and sat down near me, and said something about how upset she was,” said Milstead. “I didn’t want to get into it, but did say something about her having other options.”
He said the next thing he knew, the minister was in his face, angrily saying, “If you know so much, go get your own license!”
He did just that the following day, filing out the required paperwork with a court in Spotsylvania.
The Santa part of the equation started a long time ago, when Milstead played him for a few years when his kids were young. Eight years ago, the young-at-heart Spotsylvanian looked into the mirror and saw enough gray to know it could work again.
“I’d always wanted to be Santa again,” he said.
He bought a suit, grew out his white hair and beard and spread the word that he wanted to portray “a very, very real Santa.”
Before long, he had a truck outfitted with a Santa license plate, a “Mailbox to Santa” mounted on the bumper and “Powered by Reindeer” written on its side. He started showing up in his Santa suit for parades, Santa trains, TV appearances and commercials, corporate and private-family Christmas parties and stops at hospitals and senior centers.
Milstead always strived to make his Santa bold, friendly and fun-loving, but it was a trip to consult a veteran Santa in North Carolina that took things to a higher level. While there, Milstead asked the veteran if he knew the name of the real Mrs. Claus.
“He said something normal like Emma,” said Milstead, and that was indeed the name of the North Carolina Santa’s wife.
“Yes, I am Santa, and my wife’s name is Emma,” said the veteran Santa. “If you’re doing Santa, you are Santa. You’re not portraying him, you are him, and everything that flows from that is real.”
Milstead said since then, he’s found more than his share of magic in being the big guy in the red suit. He sees it in the eyes of children and in the way folks in retirement homes and hospitals lay down their pain and burdens when they see Santa arrive.
Or when coincidences keep happening.
Like the time when he was driving home on Interstate 95 in his suit and his decked-out truck. A car pulled up beside him, flashed its lights and followed him to an exit. Turns out it was a Navy sailor and his bride who Milstead bonded in marriage.
“They were coming up from Florida to introduce his family here to their new baby,” said Milstead. “They wanted to find me so I could walk in with the baby. I did and it was a blast. But what are the odds they see me on the highway?”
He’s got a slew of different ways to connect with kids as Santa, from researching things about them ahead of time to arriving with props such as a reindeer antler he carries.
Milstead says he often suggests to couples to have a Christmas party and not tell the guests it will be a wedding. After Milstead surprises the guests by arriving as Santa, the couple say what they want for Christmas is to be married.
“Slowly, we go from the fantasy to the reality of me marrying them, reaching into Santa’s bag and pulling out my marriage book,” he said.
Milstead said that playing Santa makes him feel like he’s doing what he should with his life: sharing joy. He has a blast being St. Nick.
“When I’m Santa on a float in Virginia Beach’s Grand Illumination Parade, there are 100,000 or so people screaming and cheering,” he said. “You stand up, they cheer. You sit down, they cheer. It’s the greatest rush in the world.”