It was Christmas 1996 and I was recovering from cardiac bypass surgery. I had just finished my rehabilitation and was looking for a way to repay Mercy Hospital for saving my life. What better way than to be a volunteer in the auxiliary unit of and donate my time to escort patients in and out of the hospital?
Being a little on the plump side and sporting an Earnest Hemmingway white beard and mustache brought me into the possible field of finalists for being the 1996 Santa Claus on the pediatrics floor. I accepted the new assignment without hesitation and donned the red suit. Little did I know that the magic of that suit would change my life forever.
Four weeks later I was already searching the internet for costumes, boots, toys and anything else that could be used to further enhance my image as Santa Claus. I could not wait until next year. I was smitten, hooked and addicted, to the image of Santa and the magical effects that it had on children and adults of all ages. I had found my calling. What pure joy it was! I continued this endeavor for 20 some years at Mercy, with expansion into the outer world. I had training at the University of Santa Claus, earning both Bachelor's and Master’s degree in Santa Clausology.
The following are just a few of my epiphanies that have blessed my life forever.
A Catholic Ministry for the homeless called the “Kitchen” was established on Commercial Street in north Springfield. The NICU nurses provided a pizza lunch and gifts given out by Santa during December each year. Photos and girl and boy gifts were given to each child. The line of children to sit on Santa’s lap and receive a gift was always long. Up on my lap jumped a little 11-year-old boy. His name was David, and I reached into my boy bag of toys and brought out a football. Handing this to David, I said "Merry Christmas David", and then noticed crocodile tears running down his face. I quickly retracted my offer and whispered, “I’ll get you another present David,” to which he responded “Oh no Santa, I love this football, it’s just that I have never received a Christmas present before!” My heart was shredded, and I thought to myself, how is it possible to be eleven years old in America and never get a Christmas present. I hugged him tightly and whispered into his ear, ”From now on you always will.”
A Breakfast with Santa at a local Catholic School brought several hundred children and parents to eat pancakes and then see Santa for photos. All this took some time, and as it was winding down, a little girl, no more than four or five years old kept waiting for the other children to leave after getting their photo taken. Finally it was her turn, and when she was sitting on my lap, hugged me for a long time, and then whispered into my ear. “Santa, my Grandpa died yesterday and I loved him and miss him already. Can you please be my Grandpa from now on?” I said without hesitation, “Yes, I will, forever.” There is something magical about the Christmas Spirit and the legend of Santa Claus that fills the holes in our hearts left by the loss of loved ones. It is a warm feeling that cannot be explained by anything else, except that the spirit of Jesus Christ is within us all, and all we have to do is just “ASK.”