Santa had a confession. There have been times when the spirit is lacking; sometimes it just doesn’t seem like Christmas and he has considered throwing in the towel.
It first happened several years ago. He questioned whether he had it in him for another season of party stops, house and office visits and kids asking for computer games. And then he got a request to bring his bag of gifts to a house and pull out two kittens.
Chris – he tells me that’s his real name and I believe him – is not a cat person, never has been. But this was important, so Santa dismissed his pet prejudice and took the assignment. It was apparent from the moment he stepped inside the house that the family was just scraping by. Things had been tough, but Santa lifted their spirits and the kitten had found a home. It reminded Chris why he has been doing this more than 30 years.
He was at it again Saturday, at the Central Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce “Breakfast with Santa” and the Beacon’s “Pictures with Santa” at the Pilgrim Senior Center. The center was the first of a couple of visits that day. Sunday, he was the star at an event with more than 500 children. Chris estimates he will have made 35 appearances by Christmas, which, if you average it out at 50 to 70 kids per stop, adds up to more than a couple of thousand kids.
Santa questioned himself again this year. He needed to find the spirit; the moment that marks the season and lifts the experience of his “Ho, ho, ho!” from the perfunctory to the meaningful. The Pilgrim Senior Center was the spot, although I would never guessed what turned it around for Chris this year.
I would have thought Donna Johnson or Priscilla Longo would tug at his heart. Pricilla was one of the first to line up but, unlike those behind her, she was not a child or mother, or a grandmother with a child in tow. She came to get her picture with Santa to send to her father in Georgia who has Alzheimer’s.
Beacon reporter Jessica Botelho and Beacon sales representative Brittany Wardwell were Santa’s elves and offered to take Priscilla’s photo using Priscilla’s cell phone. Priscilla didn’t have a phone. Well, Jessica suggested, she would use her own phone and email the picture to her.
“I don’t do computers,” Priscilla said.
Finally, it was agreed she would stop by the paper and we would get her a photo. Priscilla was happy and she beamed when she gave Santa a hug. Maybe the picture will trigger a memory for her father.
Donna is a regular at the Senior Center and didn’t want to miss having her picture with Santa. She pulled up a chair beside him. He pulled her close for the photo, the pair smiling. I wondered what Donna wanted for Christmas. She didn’t pause. “Health,” she said, and added that she has been blessed with it. Indeed, that is a blessing.
Kids have asked for good health, sometimes for themselves and sometimes for members of their families. Those are difficult wishes. What can Santa say?
“There are only certain things Santa can help with,” he said.
One wish Santa granted came sometime ago, when a Cambodian family with six children turned out for one of his visits. The kids were in their best outfits and lined up in front of him by height like “steps to a set of stairs.”
He asked each what they wanted for Christmas and when he got to the last, he learned the family hadn’t been able to afford a tree and more than anything that child wanted a tree.
Chris didn’t delay. He bargained for a tree, getting it in exchange for a Santa appearance. He and his wife Nancy (don’t call her Mrs. Claus, she doesn’t go for that) found some lights and decorations and, on Christmas Eve, the whole family joined in trimming the tree.
“We all put up the tree. It was humbling,” says Chris.
There are times when he pays a home visit and there’s nothing they need. “They’ve got everything and they don’t care.” And then there are the times like the Cambodian family, when it’s worthwhile.
Chris’ mother bought him the suit and introduced him to the role. He recalls his beard wasn’t quite white and he wore a false one. But he loved the role, which he fills at no charge and willingly. That was true in 1998, the year his mother died the week before Christmas. She died on a Thursday morning, but he didn’t cancel his appearances and, the following night, was wearing his Santa smile, knowing this is what she would want.
Sometimes he gets kids who ask, “Are you for real.”
His question in response, “Do you believe?”
There were no doubters Saturday. He was Santa. No question.
And, for a first time in all the years, a girl asked him for a nice bathrobe. And then there was the equally unheard of request for a metal detector.
I was surprised, too and had to ask the boy what he hoped to find.
“Buried treasure,” he said with assurance.
And I understood what Santa looks for in the season, what brings him the spirit…dreams.