By Anna Grace Moore

Photos by Blair Ramsey & Contributed

Keeley McGee can feel her son’s tiny palms tugging in hers–as he tries to break free and catch a glimpse of the sweet-smelling man dressed in bright red and white, who just waltzed through the front door. Little McGee–with eyes as big as saucers–squeals in delight as the man chuckles, bellowing a hearty, ‘Ho, Ho, Ho!’

Keeley finally lets go, watching her children scamper up to Santa, practically jumping right in his lap. It’s the third year Big E Santa has made a guest appearance from the North Pole in the McGee family living room for Christmas photos.

Keeley smiles softly, watching her kids giggle as they tug playfully on Big E’s snow-white beard. She remembers her parents trying to keep the magic of Christmas alive, even after she stopped believing in Santa.

Here she stands decades later with happy tears, feeling the magic of Christmas awake in her again while watching Santa enact “The Night Before Christmas.” This love feels warm and happy, she thinks.

Big E, though towering over 6 feet tall, kneels down to each child, playing with their toys with a twinkle in his eye.

No matter the toy or the year, Big E knows most of the toys boys and girls seem to want. Although, kids can surprise him. One year, a child asked for a baby brother. Big E replied that was a wonderful wish, and he would check with the child’s parents, giving a wink to the parents.

The next year, the family visited Big E, and they had a new baby boy! Big E says this was such a special memory he cherishes to this day. Some children’s wishes tug on his heart strings, he says.

During a different visit, a child asked Big E for a bed—her own real bed. He says it was really difficult not to jump up right then and get that child a bed. But, no matter the request, Big E listens and says he will see what he can do.

As Keeley watches her own kids play with Big E, she chuckles, watching them quiz Big E on what reindeers eat, which is carrots, by the way. Big E is sure to tell them he must not let Dasher out of his sight, or else cheeky Dasher will sneak some peppermints, causing Comet and Cupid to go into a frenzy.

Little McGee pipes up, asking, “How come you came in through the front door, Santa?”

Big E smiles warmly, cuddling the child and says, “That’s because my magic doesn’t work in the daytime, only at night.”

The clock’s hands soon point South, and Big E concludes his debut, slipping out the door while the kids aren’t looking. Another child’s day was made, and it’s all thanks to the man in the suit himself, John Ellis.

John first began dressing up as Santa at one of his office’s Christmas parties, and soon, people began requesting his guest appearance year after year. Nearly 10 years later, John has become the city of Vestavia Hills’ most coveted figure each holiday season, appearing at events such as the city’s annual Christmas tree lighting, the Vestavia Hills Holiday parade, Breakfast with Santa and more.

Not only does John play Santa at city-wide events, but he also is available for bookings, coming to families’ homes to take pictures with children. Though playing Santa has become a fun job, John says it never feels like work.

“It puts me in the spirit of Christmas because I’m able to go out and be in a crowd and make people laugh or smile,” John says. “It is a great feeling. I enjoy it. It makes me happy, and I hope I make the people I see happy as well.”

John also partners with several nonprofits and businesses, appearing as Santa to fundraise for charity. Each Christmas season, John pays a visit to the Tangles hair salon in Vestavia Hills. If children bring a new, unused toy to donate for Toys for Tots, they can get their picture taken with “Big E Santa,” which is John’s holiday moniker.

John says his favorite events to play Santa at are the ones that seem to make a difference in another person’s day. One year while attending a Christmas party at The Exceptional Foundation, John slipped in the back, waiting for the party goers to realize Santa was there.

The DJ cut the music, announcing Santa’s arrival. An enormous cheer erupted from the crowd, as the students turned and dashed towards him, nearly knocking him over with bear hugs.

“There are many times I may not be in the greatest mood, but I put that suit on and went to my event and immediately perk up because of how fun it is,” John says. “I play Santa Claus to bring a smile to people’s faces.”

Young or old, people seem to love Big E Santa when he spends time with them, making them feel as though they’re the only ones in the room. For the past few years, John has played Santa at several fraternity and sorority socials at Auburn University–his alma mater–and jokes that for the first time in his life, girls actually want their picture taken with him. What is special about these socials is that many of these same students are ones John watched grow up in Vestavia Hills. John says he hopes Big E will be invited to other universities’ socials soon.

Kym Prewitt, a family friend of the Ellis family, says she and her husband first met John while they were all students at Auburn. More than 40 years later, they’re all still friends whose kids have grown up together.

“Everybody who knows John loves John,” Kym says. “John really does have many of the qualities of Santa. He is jolly and is actually one of the wittiest people I know. He is kind, and his heart is huge! We have served on church mission trips with him, and he ministers with love. He truly spreads the joy of Christmas every day.”

Kym, a former Vestavia Hills High School teacher, says John even came to help fundraise at several school events such as at the annual RISE charity basketball game, which raised money for cancer research. No matter where he goes, John inspires the good in people, she says.

Keeley, too, shares that she looks forward to John coming over for Christmas photos every year because he is a wonderful reminder of how to appreciate the yuletide season–through the eyes of a child. She first met John on a walk through their neighborhood and later learned he played Santa, so she booked him to come over one year, and he has become a family tradition ever since.

“John works really well with kids of all different types of needs,” Keeley says. “He’s very patient, and he is authentic. He takes a lot of time with each child and makes them feel comfortable. It took my son forever to warm up, but he was like, ‘No rush. We won’t pressure him. He’ll be fine. I’ve got time.’ I think the patience he has is phenomenal.”

Part of what makes Big E Santa authentic is the dedication John takes into making his character come alive each season. Not only is his suit custom made, but his hair and his beard are real, too. In fact, John gets his hair and beard lightened each November to prepare for his “Santa” appearances.

“I try to think like a child,” John says. “When I started thinking about playing Santa, I thought, ‘What should Santa smell like?’ I went to the grocery store and bought a bottle of peppermint oil and put some on my neck and shoulders because I think Santa Claus should smell like peppermint.”

Keeley adds that John has mastered the character, making parents feel as though he is the kindest man in the world. She says John makes sure never to park in front of a family’s house, so the children never see Santa arrive in a car.

Even if children are not getting photos with him, John makes sure every child knows they are loved.

“We had a neighbor who wasn’t having pictures made with Santa but saw him and got excited,” Keeley says. “He didn’t rush off. He took time with that child and asked what they wanted for Christmas. John really makes sure that every child feels special.”

While John has been playing Santa for the better part of the last decade, he does not have plans to retire anytime soon. If he can spread joy just by dressing up and playing the part, then it is worth it to him to continue spreading the magic of the season.

“Santa Claus embodies the goodness in humanity, but children embrace this goodness every day,” John says.

John believes the best way to celebrate Christmas is to appreciate what children bring into everyone’s lives. If by celebrating children, adults feel the magic of the season, let it be known that Santa is merely a reminder of what the magic truly is–love.

To learn more about Big E Santa or book with him, follow him on Facebook and Instagram @bigesanta, or contact him directly at