Retired teacher Susie Jones brings sleigh-full of love to Mother Christmas role
Story by Molly Morris
Photos by India Garrish and Julie Smith
She’s not showy. She doesn’t need to be.
Her costume is simple, classic — a red and green plaid apron and a white blouse, its collar and cuffs embroidered with small red flowers. Christmas bell earrings and a fuzzy red hat complete the look, her snowy white hair poking out underneath. A glimmer of magic in her warm eyes.
Susie Jones is Mrs. Santa Claus.
It’s not just a character she plays each holiday season. Susie embodies all the Mother of Christmas stands for — she’s full of genuine love and patience for children and undeniably believes in the spirit of Christmas, lighting up as she talks about her favorite holiday and memories from years past.
A retired kindergarten teacher of 30 years, Susie, now 87, promised to return to West Elementary School every year to visit her last class until they graduated.
Susie isn’t the type to break a promise.
One year, around Christmas time, she decided to make the visit a little extra special.
“Maybe Mrs. Santa ought to just come and read the story this time,” she said. “Oh, they got such a kick out of it, so we did that every year.”
Word spread, and she donned her new look at other area schools, church events and even women’s groups from time to time.
But her main gig started about a decade ago: Santa Day at Southwest Early Childhood Center. It’s Susie’s favorite day of the year.
Groups of students pass through to make cards, decorate cookies, read stories and sing Christmas carols while patiently waiting for the main event: a trip to see Santa and Mrs. Claus.
After talking with the big man in red, it’s Susie’s turn.
“They have a big red wagon, and the wagon is full of stocking caps. … My job is when the child comes to me, we have to pick out the hat. Sometimes it takes a while because you have to have just the right color. And I love that part,” she chuckled.
Susie’s son Brad Jones, who participates in community theater productions and is a fellow lover of Christmas, comes along as a jack-of-all-trades elf, encouraging the children to smile for photos or helping decorate cookies.
Scholastic Inc. donates a book for each of the 200 or so children, and numerous current and retired teachers and other community members volunteer to make the day special for the children at SWECC, which caters to students with special needs or from low-income families.
“It’s so special. It just tells you what good people we have in this town,” Susie said.
“You are viewing all of these children who need love. And when they walk in the door in the morning, that’s what they get. They are so loved. And that’s what Mrs. Santa puts out; she tries to be a loving person, and some of those children don’t have a lot of love.”
After a long, but joyous, day Susie and Brad get in the car and say the same thing each year: “‘Are you tired?’ ‘Yes, but it was still the best day of the year,’” Susie recalls, her voice catching as she reminisces, followed shortly by a quick dabbing of her eye with a tissue. “And then we go home and collapse.”
Watching the news as the coronavirus spread through 2020, Susie knew what was coming: They wouldn’t be able to go to the schools last year; it wasn’t safe.
However, the Santa Day organizers got creative. After all, a pandemic can’t stop Christmas.
Dressed in costume and full of more love than ever, Susie and Brad made a short video to send to the students. They wrote a script, and Susie sat in front of a snowman-covered fireplace at Brad’s house checking through the naughty and nice list.
“We were so disappointed last year that we couldn’t go into the school,” she said. “(But we thought) this year is more important than any year because these children have to know that Santa is still going to come. Everything else in our life is kind of turned upside down, but let’s keep their little hopes up.”
Some of Susie’s most cherished memories are from Christmases past. As a child in Hannibal, she remembers waking up early Christmas morning to see what she and her brother got in their stockings. They didn’t have much, and it was always the same thing — oranges, nuts and maybe a new pair of socks — but it didn’t matter. It was Christmas, and Santa provided.
She recalls when her dad starting joining in on the fun, playfully filling his stocking with coal and rocks, hoping to get a laugh from Susie and her older brother.
“I never could understand why Santa would do anything like that because my dad, he was just the sweetest, kindest person. He finally stopped doing it because it emotionally really affected me,” Susie, said, caught in the simplicity of the memory.
“Things like that just come back to you, and that’s what makes Christmas so wonderful when you have a good, close, loving family and everyone together.”
During those early years, Susie dreamed of becoming a nurse. She had several dolls as a child and was always playing hospital, tending to their ailments.
But one day in about the sixth grade, a teacher asked if she would help with the kindergarten class for the afternoon. They played games and painted, and “I just wanted to do that every day,” she said.
Slowly she started changing her mind, and when she realized as a nurse she would have to do the unthinkable task of taking care of sick children, it was settled. She was going to be a teacher and relish in the happy moments watching children succeed and grow.
Susie earned her teaching license, got married and eventually moved to Jefferson City with her husband, who was a civil engineer with the highway department.
The young couple bought a house on West Main Street, catty corner from West School. While she taught at a few area schools over the years — and took a break from teaching when her two sons were young — Susie spent much of her career at West.
“I always joked, that rut that is in West Main Street, I made it walking back and forth from my house to West School, but I loved West School,” she said.
Susie retired in 1992, but she really never stopped being a teacher — never stopped caring about her fellow teachers or taking pride in her former students’ accomplishments. For years, she kept a scrapbook of her students who were in the newspaper, their wedding announcements or other accomplishments.
“Nothing makes me prouder than when one of my students comes up to me and says, ‘Oh, Mrs. Jones, I was in your kindergarten class, and this is my little boy.’”
In a lot of ways, the evolution from kindergarten teacher Susie Jones to Mrs. Santa Claus was pretty natural, even though she didn’t don the signature red fuzzy hat until after retirement.
“It was an ongoing thing,” Susie said of her connection with Mrs. Claus, “and I love every minute of it. It’s a little bit of school teaching but a lot of fun.”
As Mrs. Claus, Susie has countless anecdotes of sweet moments with the children — like the little girl who was unable to walk or talk, but whose face lit up as her cheek brushed the plush, white fur on Santa’s lapel as she laid in his lap.
“When she was out, everyone who was helping on that stage had tears running down their cheeks, me included, because it was so touching,” she said, adding she saw that girl passed away several years later. “I will never forget that child for the rest of my life. That’s what it does to you. Mrs. Santa’s putting out, but oh my goodness, I’m gaining so much more.”
Most of her memories, though, are about the teachers.
“Those wonderful teachers, they already have their halos,” Susie said, noting working with children with special needs requires a lot of patience and even more love. “It’s just a thrill to me to watch them.”
Not one to crave the spotlight for too long, when she’s not talking about her students or fellow teachers, Susie is beaming with pride for her family.
Her granddaughter, Katie, followed in her footsteps to become an elementary school teacher, and the proud grandma is looking forward to spending Christmas with the entire family, including Katie’s son, Susie’s first great-grandchild.
With the whole family together — hopefully even Susie’s other son who often travels back to Missouri with his wife and dog from New York — the Joneses will enjoy a good meal; Brad’s wife, Brenda, does a lot of the cooking.
It’s simple; it’s joyous; it’s packed with love.
It’s just perfect for Mrs. Claus.
“I just wish everybody had Christmas like I do. It’s such a happy time with the ones you love most. That’s all that matters.”