Next to every Santa is a Mrs. Claus. For Scott County, that honor belongs to Debra Kumar.
Kumar has been donning the role of Mrs. Claus in Scott County for nearly five years, something she feels makes her more connected to the community.
“I love it,” she said. “It’s my community, my family. I grew up in a small town smaller than this one. Your community is part of your family.”
Kumar said her favorite part is answering the children’s questions.
“It’s so much fun to hear the questions they ask me, all about reindeer, the elves and everything that goes on at the North Pole,” she said. “I see their smiles and it makes me happy.”
Every year, Kumar said she learns something more about herself by taking on Mrs. Claus.
“The more I do it, the more I feel like it’s me,” she said. “The more I begin to believe I’m the character I’m portraying. I think that makes it easier for the children to believe.”
Kumar came into the role of Mrs. Claus through a commercial she did for Whitaker Bank’s “Make the Switch” advertising program. But she never expected it to stick for this long.
“Mrs. Claus came just came along spontaneously,” she said. “I was asked to portray Mrs. Claus in this Whitaker Bank commercial, and after that people started asking me to come to schools and museums and other venues.”
She’s embodied Mrs. Claus ever since for programs across Scott County. Kumar said one of her favorite programs is the Christmas stories and writing letters to Santa event at the Georgetown/Scott County Museum.
Ruthie Stevens, director of the museum, said she couldn’t imagine a better Mrs. Claus.
“Debra just always seemed perfect for the role,” Stevens said. “She has such a personality that appeals to the children that makes it so fun. I have seen her tell many, many stories and I have seen her work with the children and it’s always just a fun event.”
Stevens said the event typically features Mrs. Claus telling stories to children in 30-minute increments with breaks in between and children will write their letters to Santa to be delivered. But she said Kumar always went above and beyond to interact with the children.
“Sometimes, when she did not have a group of kids or an audience, she would come out into the main room where the children are writing their letters and she would converse with them,” Stevens said. “They love that so much.”
Kumar said it was her love of storytelling, something she’s done her entire life, that ultimately led her to the role.
“Christmas has always been an important holiday for me,” she said. “I remember as a child dressing up my brothers and reading Bible stories. My brother Stevie’s stuffed bear was baby Jesus. We would do this sort of play for our parents every year.”
Kumar went on to get her bachelor’s degree in fine arts from West Virginia University. Years later, she attended a storytelling festival in Morehead that opened her eyes wider to the possibilities.
“The first day of the festival, I stood back and watched everything they (storytellers) did and just thought, ‘hey, can I do that?’” she said. “So, the next day, there were no reserved signs, so I just went in and planted myself in the middle and started talking like I was one of them. I entered a contest as a storyteller that day and came in second place.”
Kumar is the current president of the Kentucky Storytelling Association (KSA). She added that she loves the outreach and awareness her storytelling generates.
“The art of storytelling has been fading and I don’t want to see it disappear,” she said. “Our children need to learn that art. Everybody’s a storyteller. Preachers are storytellers. When you get your first job, you’re telling a story to get hired. Telling stories, developing stories and hearing stories, I love that and it’s an important skill for people of all ages to learn.”
Kumar said she loves the ability to personalize her stories differently to each audience.
“It’s different when you’re telling stories in person,” she said. “You look at the audience and see how they’re reacting. Storytelling is a unique art form because it’s never the same experience twice or between any two people. I may be talking about the red apple that Snow White took a bite out of but every person who’s listening will see Snow White and the apple a little bit differently. The story occurs in the imagination.”
But 2020 has not been easy on Kumar portraying Mrs. Claus. Rather than the typical story reading and letter writing event at the museum, Stevens said Kumar recorded videos of herself and Santa Claus reading and responding to letters and telling stories.
“We had to change our entire plan,” Stevens said. “We had to cancel where kids come in and write their letters for Santa at the museum. But we thought it would be really neat if we could have Mrs. Claus send out that little (video) message, and she did it as she was speaking to the kids, about how much Santa and she would be looking forward to the messages. It turned out really good.”
Kumar said she feels, especially with the children, that she’s having to adapt to make a connection.
“When you’re doing it in a video, it’s a little different because you’re assuming the reactions from the audience,” Kumar said. “I’m never truly satisfied with that. It wouldn’t have bothered me if I had an audience in front of me. When you’re telling it on a video, it’s like ‘I don’t like that one, I’ll do another one.’ You don’t quite make the bond.”
Despite these challenges, Kumar said she loves playing Mrs. Claus and will continue portraying her as long as she can so children can still make the most out of this holiday season.
“Christmas always comes,” she said. “It may not look the same every year, but it’s always there. Remember that it’s the spirit of Christmas that counts, and the spirit of Christmas is love.”
Videos of Mrs. Claus reading stories and children’s letters can be found on the Georgetown /Scott County Museum’s Facebook page.
Kyle Woosley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.