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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

One Santa's greatest gift of all.

If you are in the mood for a Christmas story, here is a good one. This story is true, so true that it just happened to a friend of mine.

It’s a little early, but this is an early kind of Christmas story… you’ll see what I mean. All good stories have one thing in common. Things fall together, and give happenings some kind of meaning, if not universal significance, and in the end, we learn something. Sometimes, if we read the right stories, we can even see God’s hand at work…

This friend of mine has been on a professional roller coaster lately, trying to make a living, experimenting with different possibilities, still trying to decide what he might be when he grows up. He is close to my age, and we share a lot of common interests, and not a few of life’s disappointments, but we both relish in people, relationships and especially various modes of communication, and doing these things inside God’s kingdom. He has a good heart, but has suffered some health setbacks and fighting a flat economy like the rest of us, has had some dark days. All the while he has been searching, thinking, seeking a foundational vocation that is … his purpose in life.

Almost two years ago, out of almost unexplainable urges, he started growing a beard. Perhaps out of rebellion, or frustration, or protest, or just because he could. It got big and then bigger, and one day he met a professional Santa on the job, who handed him a card, it said: “You look like Santa, we have big shoes to fill… SANTAJOBS.COM.” That card was a persistent little seed that began to sprout. He began to watch Santas at work and visit with some of them. But he got too hot one day last year after a hurricane had knocked out the electricity, and shaved the beard off.

But then he grew it back.

He found, and tongue in cheek, purchased an interesting pair of reading glasses, red, he couldn’t explain exactly, but they just looked like, call him crazy, something Santa Claus would wear. He dared not tell anyone. But he wondered. Meanwhile the beard got huge. It became… his dominant characteristic. Kids would run by and then stop in their tracks, and look back.

One day while walking on the beach near San Luis pass, a little boy became thrilled to see him, “even Santa was on vacation on Galveston Island!”

Then, just weeks ago a friend in the neighborhood asked him, since he already had the beard, if he would be Santa for a large party of local children. They would pay all of his expenses, in suit rental or hairdressing or whatever. That did it. He seized the moment. He would do it for free, just to learn what it was like, feel it, see if it was… his purpose. He began to search the Internet. The world of Santa Clauses is as specialized and fragmented as organized religion. There was some kind of “Amalgamated” confederation of Santas, and “Real Bearded” Santas, and fraternal orders of Santas and even something called “Naturally” Santas. He went and dug up those Santa business cards he had been collecting. He purposefully began to call some of those local Santas to get some direction. How does one get into this Santa thing?

But each call had pleasantries and disappointments. Whether it was bad luck or timing, or Providential interference, each Santa guy had some excuse why he could not help. One was too busy, another retiring, and then finally, a Santa agreed to see him. You see, some of these guys make good money during the Christmas season. Santa’s Wonderland near Navasota brings in a big time Santa from out of state that actually calls himself Santa Claus and receives mail at the North Pole. He makes big bucks. Why in the world would any Santa worth his weight in jingle bells give away trade secrets?

But this Santa guy, called “Santa Charlie” agreed to entertain the aspiring Santa, who had only a beard and a pair of red granny glasses and this nagging thought in his head. It was almost too good to be true, for Santa Charlie was a really serious, well established Santa. Santa Charlie and his wife had travelled all over the Country, thrilling little children over many years, in many places and developing quite a shtick. Santa Charlie was even the Santa for Houston’s prestigious Galleria. My friend gathered up his hopes and went to see one of Houston’s best Santas.

They seemed to connect immediately. Santa Charlie asked him some pretty good questions, and gave him some critical pointers and universally revered Santa commandments. And Santa Charlie looked into my friend’s heart. He saw someone worthy… not only to be a Santa, but to fill his own Santa boots. After some time together, he decided, my friend was THE ONE. Santa Charlie then explained one critical element to his own story. “I have pancreatic cancer.” My friend never suspected, but he was not just meeting a mentor, he was being interviewed. Santa Charlie had been looking for someone to hand over his duties to.

Santa Charlie showed my friend his extensive Santa wardrobe… and one for the Missus as well. Would his wife want to do this with him? The two wardrobes and associated materials, four footlockers worth, were worth a fortune to an aspiring Santa and Mrs. Claus. They were well made, very authentic, with a tasteful Victorian feel. Everything about Santa Charlie had been built on excellence and sincerity. But now he would never accept his duties again. He had to get his house in order… give his attention to this fight for his life, and prepare his family for the worst. He had spent a great deal of his life giving joy and hope and fun to children, and now he was giving it all away. He would rather give it to a worthy aspirant than sell it to someone he had doubts in.

 Being a Santa was more than just making a buck. It is a mission.

My friend tried on the suit. It fit well. As he put it on, many thoughts raced through his mind. Mostly he was feeling affirmation of his crazy leanings he had months before, when he quit shaving and started searching. When the big day of the party came, he was more than ready, and so was his wife, in her maiden portrayal as Mrs. Claus. I met them at a nearby lodge where they were putting on finishing touches to their new… ministry. He was practicing his Ho Ho Ho’s in the mirror. She was shaking her head and good naturedly helping him fuss with his curls.

I found out later that I was privileged to see the transformation, that this was considered a sort of mystery and not for general audiences. But I was there to photograph the epiphany, and was allowed into the inner circle as extended family. And I was honored to be considered as such. There are pictures here that tell the rest of the story. Saturday morning, a bunch of little girls found the real Santa, and had the time of their lives. And a man, searching perhaps most of his life, found at least a part of his identity, and a viable vocation.

There is no way to tell who had the most fun, or gave the most love or received it, or who will remember this day the longest, but it was a blessed moment for sure. Everybody had the best time. My friend had such a good time, he was ready to do it all over again. As I left, he and Mrs. Claus were headed out into the world, ready to bring hope and magic to children everywhere, of all ages; to love and speak kindness to every child, and keep the spirit of Christmas, the ancient Christian generosity of St. Nicholas, in practice for another generation. Something tells me they are already having a merry Christmas.

Note to skeptics: Jesus is, and always has been, and always will be the “Reason for the Season.” But a Jewish Messiah, born to die so that men could live forever, is a bit much for little ones to wrap their minds around, and appreciate for what it means. Looking at these children’s faces, I understand one thing for the first time… why our ancestors perpetuated the myth. Every Christian should find a great deal of satisfaction from living in the Christian culture that spawned Santa. When one looks at all the monsters and trolls and evil witches in our ancient Celtic lore, it does my heart good to know our ancestors saw the need to give their kids some refuge from all of that, and brought Saint Nicholas into their homes every Christmas. Our kids today have just as much need, perhaps more, for fantasy and wonder and innocence and magical elves that sneak around and bring you special things, if you are good. The world is after all, such a dark, depressing, dangerous place. And when they see Santa… their eyes light up and we can be reminded that we were all like them, innocent and pure and unscarred once.

You can stay sane if you just remember that, or see it in the face of a child, as fleeting as it may be.

Enjoy the pictures. And pray for Santa Charlie. I hope this story touches you as it has me, and your family has a safe and inspiring Holiday Season.

And if nothing else works out for you, just quit shaving!

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