Yes, Jessica, there is a Santa Claus


Randy Riley - Contributing columnist



Spoiler Alert: There are four, very different, types of Santas.

There are Santa helpers (with a small “h”) who wear cheap beards, worn red suites, tall black shoe covers, that look nothing like real boots, an off-white beard that fits over their ears and is usually slightly discolored beneath the nose. These helpers look at being a Santa helper as a seasonal job. They’re in it for the meager financial reward.

Then, there are the Santa Helpers (with a capital “H”). They take the responsibility more seriously, but will never be mistaken for the real Santa. They dress better and try harder than the Santa helpers. These Santa Helpers are often seen at office parties, or ringing a bell to raise money for a good cause. They’re good people.

A big step above the Santa Helpers is the Serious Santa Person (SSP). As the name implies, they take the responsibility very seriously. An SSP often grows a long white beard or applies a theatrical beard whenever they go on their pre-Christmas rounds. They invest in excellent North Pole apparel. The boots and belts are real. The white fur trim looks real (but isn’t) and they sometimes emit a faint odor of peppermint. They often take no pay for their efforts. Their mission is to keep the magic alive for Christmas-loving people everywhere.

Finally, there is the real, one-and-only Santa Claus. You will never see him at an office party or ringing a bell. He is too busy for that. He is surrounded by magic. If you see him before Christmas Eve, he is probably traveling to double-check on someone’s behavior. The reindeer and sleigh are used on snowy nights, but he might use a little red Jeep if there isn’t enough snow. Although he tries to stay in shape, he always puts on a few extra pounds to get him through his long 24-hour Christmas Eve trip. He is a magical superhero. He is the real Santa.

For nearly 25 years, I was a Serious Santa Person. For many seasons, I would travel around the county visiting children in their homes. Friends, family and co-workers would welcome me on a cold December night to have a quick visit and heartfelt chat with their little ones. Although I haven’t been an SSP for several years, it was possibly one the most rewarding, enjoyable things I’ve ever done. There were times that is was magical.

My work as an SSP all started over 35 years ago as a joke. I was still working at the hospital. At the annual CMH Christmas dinner, the supervisors and managers would serve a very special Christmas meal to all the employees and would also present them with a small gift.

The administrator at the time could be somewhat Grinchy. He didn’t really like Santa. I believe that Santa probably felt the same about him. So, one year, just to aggravate the boss, we rented a cheap Santa outfit. I donned the red suit, made a grand entrance, Ho-Ho-Ho’ed and entertained all the employees in the cafeteria.

The boss was the first person to be badgered into sitting on Santa’s lap. After that, he lightened up. We both laughed and made a holiday spectacle of ourselves. Everyone enjoyed receiving a big shiny apple and holiday gift from Santa.

The CMH volunteers liked it so much they asked me if I would be willing to be the CMH Santa every year. Of course, I agreed. During December, I would visit all the children at CMH and if Santa was needed during the off season, I would be there.

The role expanded to include visiting some children at their homes. The more I wore the red suit; the more I got into the role as the great elf from the North Pole.

I can’t speak for all SSPs, but for me it became Christmas magic. When I put on the suit, my voice would drop an octave or two. I would stoop to make myself look older and smaller. My steps became quicker, but shorter. I became a short old man who appeared to be in a hurry. I loved it.

From the time my little girl, Jessi, was a little 3-year-old, Santa would visit her early on Christmas morning. There would be no conversation; no chit chat. Santa would wake her up by examining the toys in her room. She usually received an unwrapped present as Santa quietly, and in a low voice, would say, “You have been a very good girl.”

Then, Jessi and her mom would watch Santa fill her stockings and empty an entire bag of gifts under her tree. As Santa disappeared into the darkness of morning, Jessi would hear Santa proclaim, “Merry Christmas!”

Years later, during the late fall, I was driving Jessi home from another weekend visit. Like most divorced fathers, I cherished our weekends together. We never saw each other as much as we would have liked, but the time we spent together was special – magical.

Just as we turned onto Hilling Road, Jessi asked if I believed in Santa. I told her I did. I qualified that by saying that I didn’t know if Santa was a real elf who lived at the North Pole or was the spirit of Christmas and magic that brought love and joy to the world. But, did I believe in Santa? Yes, I did.

Then she said, “No. That’s not what I’m asking. I want to know if you’re the guy in the red suit on Christmas morning.” I paused, then answered, “Yes. OK. I’m busted. That’s me.”

Then I added. “Do you want me to stop, now that you know?” In a heartbeat she said, “No, no. Don’t stop. I love it.”

I promised her that Santa would always visit her on Christmas morning.

That Christmas, when presented with her special unwrapped gift. Jessi reached out, hugged Santa and said, “Santa, I love you so much.”

I cried as I drove my little red Jeep home. I also said a special prayer and gave thanks to Jesus for His miraculous birth and for the opportunity He gave me to spread Christmas joy, love and a little magic during the Christmas season.

Randy Riley is President of Council of Wilmington.

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Randy Riley

Contributing columnist