- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 24, 2014

DALLAS (AP) - As he rounded his mid-50s, Chuck Lee seemed perfectly suited to be the part-time Santa he played every holiday season.

Even before he’d assumed the role, the banjo maker and former plumber had the look down: a bushy beard, a jolly face, little round glasses and a big round belly.

The Dallas Morning News (http://bit.ly/1AIS2hn ) reports but when his health took a bad turn earlier this year, Lee redefined his lifestyle. In the process, he’s hoping to redefine Santa Claus, too.

Too often, he says, part-time Santas use the role as an excuse to ignore expanding waistlines. But why does Santa have to be overweight? Why can’t he be more fit and spry?

“A lot of Santas are rotund and unhealthy,” he says. “The sad part is, we get the message that we need to be fat. So we say it’s OK if we have that second slice of pie.”

Lee, who lives in Ovilla, became a Santa in 2011, just after his father died. He didn’t have pleasant childhood holiday memories and wanted to make new ones.

People already saw him as Santa-like, with his belly, glasses and beard. (Never mind that he wore T-shirts that exposed the tattoos on his arm.) He took the plunge and learned firsthand the power of the costume.

“It’s truly the most fun thing I’ve ever done in my life,” he says. “I get to meet people at their best. You can see their countenance change, and you see them go to a different place. And that’s a blast.”

Some kids are so mesmerized that they’re rendered speechless, he says, unable to tell him what they want for Christmas until it’s almost too late.

Lee sews his own costumes, from his velvety red cloak to his floppy tasseled hat. It’s a nice diversion from the intense, intricate work of building banjos.

He paid less attention to his health. Last February, he hit 290 pounds. At 5-foot-8, he was carrying a load.

The pains in his abdomen began soon afterward, excruciating attacks that radiated around his gallbladder and pancreas. He did his best to ignore them and his wife’s urgings to see the doctor.

Things got worse. He had acid reflux and intense joint pain. Then, in June, Lee experienced pains that lasted half a day.

He was done.

His doctor told him he had two choices: Change his diet and exercise more, or have gallbladder surgery.

Lee did a little research. Even with the surgery, he realized, he’d probably still have to diet and exercise more. He opted to skip surgery.

He cut out red meat, most dairy and almost all wheat products. He started eating more fruits and vegetables. He eliminated some sugar - but not all.

“I like cookies,” he says.

He also revisited the kung fu and tai chi classes he’d enjoyed in past years.

And he began to feel much better. Since June, he’s lost 50 pounds.

“People think it’s OK to be fat if you’re Santa,” he says. “I went from thinking I could have banana bread at Starbucks whenever I wanted to cutting all those things out.”

His year-to-year clients have noticed. More important, he’s noticed: It’s much easier for him to get on his hands and knees to interact with young children.

“Before, I was like a walrus rolling up on the beach,” he says. “It wasn’t pretty. It’s a little embarrassing to take 45 minutes to get off the floor.”

On Facebook, he started talking about his journey to better health with friends and a widespread network of Santas. That led to questions: Aren’t you worried that you won’t look authentic? That you won’t be believable?

And then other questions: How did you do it?

Now, he says, he and other Santas chat regularly about weight loss.

“No gallstone trouble since June!” he posted on his Facebook page last month. “Hey! That said, I am still a chubby Santa.”

Lee isn’t done yet. He’s aiming to lose another 50 pounds.

“He’s trying to redefine the idea of what Santa is all about,” says Craig Civale, a spokesman for Baylor University Medical Center of Dallas, where Lee recently donned his Santa suit, got a physical and greeted people in the lobby, part of an annual hospital event. “There’s an interesting message in all that - at a time of year when many of us pack on a few extra, even St. Nick is encouraging others to do things in moderation.”

Though happy for him, some friends found it hard to ditch stereotypes. “Good for you but remember Santa should have a round belly,” one wrote.

Another friend, a fellow Santa, was more encouraging: “Being Santa comes from inside, NOT (from) being fat,” he wrote. “Proud of you, Santa Chuck. I will have to follow in your footsteps.”

Some Santas pad their bellies to make themselves more portly, but Lee won’t do that. He’s already looking forward to sewing new slimmed-down outfits.

He’s enjoying a better sense of well-being. This is his gift to himself.

“I’d like children to notice that Santa is healthy,” he said. “There’s magic in that for me.”

___

Information from: The Dallas Morning News, http://www.dallasnews.com

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