CHIPLEY -- There's nowhere the Ray family travels locally that doesn't garner wishful glances and faith-filled whispers, perhaps because being a Claus is more than wearing the costume.
"The first suit I ever made ... was for Santa Rex, about 20 years ago," said "Mrs. Claus," Darline Ray of her husband, standing next to a dress form that held a visibly heavy muted-red corduroy suit.
The church had picked Rex Ray to do "the kneeling Santa" scene in a Christmas play, where Santa delivers the Christ child. It was Santa Ray Rex's first time acting as Santa.
"They put him in some K-Mart suit," Darline Ray said with a grimace. "So, the next year, I decided I would make him a Victorian suit."
"And that's my favorite," she added. "I don't think I'll ever get rid of it."
Rex and Darline Ray have converted their home into a sort-of Santa's workshop to tailor costumes for thousands of Mr. and Mrs. Clauses across the world.
"We don't want to pull away from the image that most people have of Santa and Mrs. Claus," said Rex Ray, a professional Santa Claus of 20 years. "But Santa and Mrs. Claus are people. You know how ladies are, especially, about wanting a new outfit every now and then. (Changing costumes) also helps to give that image of Santa and Mrs. Claus as more of a normal person."
Now trending on the Claus fashion scene is the Santa COOL Suit, design patent pending.
"It's very comfortable to wear," Ray Rex said. "Most Santa suits come lined with satin -- very heavy, very hot. We line this whole suit with the same material used to line men's swim trunks -- kind of a netting, so it breathes, very light-weight."
The all-machine washable suit with removable white fur, matching shirt, and removable buttons starts out at about $950. It was introduced in 2015 to professional Santas at a convention in Branson, Mo., and has since kept Mrs. Claus rather busy this time of year, with her creations having been shipped to Japan, Germany and to U.S. destinations from California to Virginia, the Clauses said.
The COOL suit is a design of one of the original Santa Claus designs, known as the "C. W. Howard suit" after its designer Charles W. Howard who popularly portrayed Santa Claus in the mid-1900s. Darline Ray's design is also featured in the Philadelphia Thanksgiving Parade, which is the nation's oldest parade.
Besides suits, the couple makes a variety of custom-made accessories, including, garment bags, boot bags, ball caps, vests and patches.
Another dress form in the shop holds a design Darline Ray dubbed the "New Orleans Mrs. Claus" - a Victorian-style candy-apple red suede jacket and skirt with white fur trimming and embroidery and a custom designed gold belt buckle. An equally red white-laced trimmed hat with an elaborate veil finished the ensemble.
"I just want something new for the kids to see," Darline Ray said, "but I want them to see that image of Mrs. Claus that they have pictured in their minds."
While some designs have an adaptable flair, the Rays are resolved to present the classic Santa and Mrs. Claus within each style.
"Santa is a very modest person ... he's there for the children," Darline Ray said. "For me, I like to keep it calm and simple so that the kids can recognize him" and "I am totally covered from my neck down" because Mrs. Claus "is a grandmotherly figure, very lady-like."
Just as the old Christmas play suit, Ray Rex hasn't let go of his Santa persona.
It's in the baby powder he lightly sprinkles in his beard to soothe babies when parents place them in his arms. It's in Mrs. Claus' polar bear puppet Snow Flake, who welcomes toddlers to tell Santa Claus what's on their wish lists.
"You don't pick the suit, the suit picks you," Rex Ray said. "Santa's here," he said, placing his hands over his heart.
"It's not in the suit, it's not in the beard," he added. "Santa comes from the heart."