And in the twinkling of an eye, Cliff Snider embraced the gift of salvation and all God had waiting for him.
What Cliff didn’t know was that God had placed a call on his life that would, in time, uniquely position him to bring good gifts to thousands – mostly children.
For an astonishing four decades now, Cliff Snider, sharing from his overflow of love for the Savior born in Bethlehem, ministers encouragement as none other than Santa Claus.
That special night was in 1971 and the message was preached from the pulpit of the First Baptist Church in Spartanburg, SC. The preacher: Cliff Barrows, long-time music and program director for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Barrows was between Crusades and, according to Cliff Snider, came to the small church with a message just for him.
“Mr. Barrows was speaking about his own conversion and how God spoke to him, calling him by name – ‘Cliff.’ Every time he said ‘Cliff’ it was like God was speaking directly to me – and I was ready.”
In truth, Cliff Snider had always sought to lead a good, clean life. As a boy he was active in the Boy Scouts, spent time after school doing “grunt” work at his dad’s print shop, and everyone knew the location of the “Snider pews” at church.
By seventh grade, Cliff was already a fan of winter and the holiday season, something he shared in common with a special classmate – Janie, whom he would marry six years later. At 13 the two labored to create a Christmas banner for the front of their school.
Looking back, Cliff says that holiday project was “prophetic,” a foreshadowing of the years the Sniders would devote to delivering the love of Christ to families at Christmastime.
But in two short years, life took a dramatic turn for the son of the town printer. At 15, Cliff lost his beloved father in an automobile accident. For a shy, overweight teen already struggling with self-esteem, the loss was devastating.
About that time Cliff received an unexpected good gift. Ironically, it came in the form of a joke on the “fat kid,” when his youth group assigned him the role of Santa one Christmas.
To his surprise and delight, the role made Cliff feel needed – rather than needy. In his oversized red Santa suit, the young boy sensed he had a purpose. “It was then that I first witnessed for myself the power of giving without expecting anything in return,” Cliff comments.
Today, Cliff and Janie live in High Point, N.C. Cliff is recognized as the most sought-after Santa in the state. That’s because he fits the part on every possible level. First of all, he looks the part of jolly ol’ Saint Nick, from his flowing white beard and rosy cheeks to his wire-framed spectacles and Santa-sized belly.
But beyond the obvious, Santa Cliff embodies the gentle nature of Santa, taking care to not frighten children with loud ho-ho-hos, choosing instead to engage young visitors in one-on-one conversation.
As Cliff has learned through the years, children – even adults – trust him, daring to share their deepest hopes with Santa. And Santa Cliff takes such softly spoken requests very seriously.
Unlike the department store Kris Kringle, Santa Cliff has a secret pocket just inside the lining of his soft red jacket for his “Santa book.” But this book’s not for sharing though; it’s for Cliff and God alone. It is a prayer notebook.
“It began when a chubby little boy climbed on my lap,” tells Santa Cliff. “When I asked him what he wanted for Christmas, he looked intently into my eyes and asked if I would make the other kids stop picking on him. I saw myself in that child and promised him I would talk to God about it. And that night, as I prayed, it seemed the heavens opened to my request. I felt as though it was the first time that little boy’s name had been lifted up in prayer.”
While Santa Cliff rarely hears the happy endings, he continues to pray. Considering he enjoys visits from tens of thousands of children from his annual post at the Christmas Castle in High Point each December, that’s quite a ministry. But even Santa isn’t perfect. Cliff tells of a time when he became discouraged in prayer.
“After I became a Christian I began praying for my brother, Walt,” shares Cliff. Even after I told him about what God had done in my life, even as I watched him struggle with addictions in his life, he wouldn’t acknowledge his need for God. I was broken-hearted.”
Even as Cliff despaired over his brother, God was preparing a good gift for both Snider brothers. After years of trying to find happiness his own way, Walt dropped to the lowest point of his life; it was there that he looked up to the Savior who had given meaning and direction to his brother’s life. Cliff saw Walt saved and delivered by the power of Jesus Christ – in spite of his own lack of faith.
“I, the unworthy brother, had given up on my own prayers for him,” recounts Cliff. “Yet, in God’s timing, I had the privilege to pray with him at the close of a service in my own church. There in the congregation was our mother. She had never stopped praying for either of her sons. This was a fundamental lesson in trust for me.”
Sharing remarkable stories of God’s goodness from both his personal and “professional” life is another aspect of Cliff’s ministry. In September 2008, Cliff’s first book, Santa’s Journey, was released.
In the book Cliff chronicles his life and ministry, stuffing it full to the brim with heartwarming stories, encouragement, and holiday cheer, together with a holiday gift – an invitation to follow Jesus Christ.
While the two Cliffs have yet to meet face-to-face, Santa Cliff contacted Barrows last year to share the story of his conversion under Barrows ministry in a church in Spartanburg nearly 40 years ago.
“On Christmas, I hope all with whom Cliff comes into contact recognize the greatest gift that has ever been given: God’s one and only Son, Jesus Christ,” says Barrows. “May the truth of God’s love for us in Christ produce in all of us ‘an inexpressible and glorious joy’ (1 Peter 1:8) that we cannot help but proclaim.”
To read more about Cliff Santa and his ministry, visit www.cliffkringle.com.
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Home page photo of Cliff Snider by Brian Hayes Photography. Top photo by Tim Talley Photography, Reidsville, NC