Columbia, MO artist Kevin Begley makes the most incredible wooden Santas you have ever seen. Stop my Missouri Life Mercantile in Rocheport to see them in person. You will want to start a family tradition with these noteworthy beards.

Flowing beards and mustaches, some that drape to the ground, are a hallmark of Kevin’s Santa creations.
Photo Credit: Photo by LG Patterson

By Danita Allen Wood

Santa Maker’s Magic

A master woodworker infuses Christmas joy into his sculptures.

STORY Danita Allen Wood PHOTOS LG Patterson

“I love Christmas,” says Kevin Begley of Columbia. That was already evident, because he had mentioned his “Christmas room,” a storage room for all his Christmas decorations, in the basement of his home.

“This year,” he says, “the mantle will have wooden branches spray painted to look like river birch.” Changing the mantle every year to delight his family is another hallmark of his joy in Christmas.

But Kevin, a woodworker, is best known for his handmade Santas. He toils in his shop year-round like one of Santa’s elves, working an hour or so almost every day while listening to classical music.

It’s not a business. He doesn’t have a retail shop, and he doesn’t have shelves lined with wooden Santas.

“It’s a hobby,” he says emphatically. He tried taking his Santas to art shows but didn’t enjoy the experience, and he doesn’t have to. His Santas fly out of his hands into those of families who collect them and treat them as heirlooms to be passed on to the next generation. Someone buys a Santa, and then their friends and family see it and want one. Some buyers become collectors and ask for a new one every year.

When Kevin started making Santas, he took inspiration from craft stores that manufacture replicas by the thousands. “I’d see something and think, ‘If I made that, I’d change it this way.’ Then I’d go home and make it,” he says.

When he saw some Santas made out of two-by-fours at an art show, he asked himself, “What if I did this?” and soon realized he wouldn’t make them out of one piece of wood. Some of his Santas have 40 pieces of wood that he carves and assembles.

From day one, he wanted his Santas to have different and noteworthy beards. The super-long beards began as an extra stability device, but now he simply makes bigger boots. He has made Santas with beards of white muslin or the long wooden whiskers, and some have short but still distinctive beards. Every Santa has unique details.

Kevin’s real career was in education for 31 years. He was a teacher and then an elementary school principal. In fact, it was door decorating for his classroom that spurred his creativity.

“I’d start with a triangle, and then put arms and legs on it and hang it on my door to make bunnies for Easter, Uncle Sams, or witches for Halloween. Pretty soon, other teachers were asking me to make them one.”

But his interest in art and wood have been lifelong.

He liked working with wood. His father worked in a lumberyard all his life, and his grandfather built houses. Kevin learned from them and from his father-in-law, who had a woodworking shop in his basement. He found himself making frequent requests to his father-in-law to borrow a saw and knew he needed his own workshop.

But he also liked art. He discovered that interest in elementary school. He went to a one-room country school that had all eight grades, but at the end of third grade, all the country schools consolidated. A new teacher saw Kevin drawing a picture. She stood over him, watching him draw and making him nervous. He had done some shadowing in the picture, and pointing to it, his teacher asked, “Where did you learn to do this?” He told her he didn’t know. When he recounted the story to his family, his grandma planted the thought that he should become an art teacher. The idea stuck, and he took every art class he could in high school, while making a specialty of oil paintings of old barns.

He became an art major in college, attending Central Methodist for his bachelor’s degree and Northeast Missouri State (now Truman State University) for his master’s.

Photo by LG Patterson

Kevin starts his Santas with the body. With each one, he wonders, “How should I make this guy look?” Sometimes an arm might drape around a toy or a snowman. He figures out how he wants to make the beard. Should it dangle off a little tilt of the head?

“I really enjoy figuring all that out,” he says. His least favorite part is antiquing the final Santa by painting brown paint over the red and black. It’s painstaking work that takes alert attention and is not as relaxing as some of the other work.

“You have to rub the brown paint off fast, and it’s higher stress work.”

He’s built every kind of Santa: Santas with bags of goodies, Santas with toys, Santas with snowmen, teddy bears, or even a Mizzou Tiger. Some of his Santas carry wreaths or lanterns. But, he repeats, it’s not a business.

He recently asked his 18-year-old grandson what he wanted for Christmas. According to Kevin, the young man replied, “Papa, I just want to come to your house and enjoy the sights, sounds, and smells of Christmas. That will make me so happy.”

As he recounts this, you can see the joy in Kevin’s face. Spreading the magic of Christmas is his real joy and passion.

Photo by Sandy Selby

How long does it take Kevin to create a Santa? Even he can’t say for certain because he’s always working on several Santas at once.

Read Missouri Life’s interview with a “real” Santa here.

Shop for Missouri-made items for all of your friends and family and of course, for yourself, here.

Article originally published in the November/December 2023 issue of Missouri Life