The Daily Southerner, Tarboro, NC

December 23, 2013

A most memorable Christmas


GREENVILLE — How many of us, as parents and grandparents, have had the opportunity to play Santa Claus?   Over forty years ago, I was hired to play Santa at a suburban Maryland mall, and did so for three holiday seasons.

It was the late 1960’s and I was a married college student at the University of Maryland, supporting a wife and infant child.  Any money-earning opportunity got my quick, rapt attention.

A family friend owned a photography studio in a local mall, and needed a Santa so they could sell their child-sitting-on-Santa's-lap photos to the proud, anxious parents and grandparents. They were willing to work around my school schedule, and pay the princely sum of $5 an hour, so I told them, “Point me towards the North Pole.”

In a stunningly elaborate beautiful red Santa suit, with wavy soft white wig and beard, it was necessary to use a pillow for padding and a little rouge to give my chubby cheeks a jolly red glow. I doubt I would need the pillow today.

Among the most memorable of those mall encounters were with families whom I had known, but they had no idea who was under the makeup and handsome Santa costume.  It would surprise, delight, and even shock them when Santa called them by name, or inquired about the well being of their family pet.

Staying in character, the jolly one would not tell them who this Santa was.  A music teacher from my junior high school days, whom I had recognized and had called by name, adamantly refused to leave the Santa House until Mr. Claus had identified himself, and clued her in.

Also, the magical Santa costume was put to good use to do a little charitable volunteer work.

Approached by a local group of junior high students, they had wanted this Santa, dressed in full, glorious jolly regalia, to accompany them on a visit to a specialty children’s hospital, for seriously sick children.  Sick is the operative word here.

That school’s service club had made and purchased gifts for the youngsters, which Santa was supposed to happily and noisily distribute.

In full, glorious Santa splendor, this naive young man met the students in the hospital lobby.  There they were, giddy with excitement and enthusiasm for the task at hand.  A hospital administrator then guided the group to a large ward.

As Santa had been expected to do, he bounded through the ward door, and gave his best boisterous, “Ho-Ho-Ho.”

An eerie silence and lack of movement greeted the merry and gay group. The silence was deafening.  Nobody had warned or advised us about the true health status of those young people.

The children weren't just sick; most were terminally ill.  Their small, delicate bodies were connected to IVs, tubes, and ventilators.  Several were in oxygen tents.  Some appeared to be in a virtual comatose state.  It was painfully obvious that some of these precious little ones were spending their last Christmas on this Earth.

Neither the students nor this Santa had any idea what to say or do. All had been struck speechless and were stunned. Nurses had quickly analyzed our confusion and discomfort, and tried to allay our fears and bewilderment, with professional kindness and grace.

We went through the motions of spirited giving and distributed the gifts; but we were heartbroken, stricken with a profound empathy for these very sick children. Misty eyes and upset feelings were all around.

Santa, the jolly man in red, is not supposed to cry, but it was everything I could have done to keep my emotions neatly bottled up and in check.  Honestly, I did cry later; I am not ashamed to admit.  Forty years later, it still pierces my heart to think about it.

Those junior high school students would be middle school parents and grandparents today.  My hope for each of them is that they have counted their many blessings every time they remember that unique hospital visit.

Every holiday season, I think about those well-meaning students, and those very sick children who were patients in that grim hospital ward.

Not trying to sound like author Charles Dickens’ character, Tiny Tim, but each year since then, my Christmas wish has been,  “God bless sick children everywhere!"