This isn’t an article about technology – it’s all about heart. Many ordinary people work all year just to make Christmas memorable for many who have so little to be thankful for. In our town, it all started when two people emptied their bank accounts to make kids squeal in delight at Christmas. The idea and generosity of those two people grew over the years as more and more people joined to help. Now, secret Santas bring happiness to unsuspecting recipients, fulfilling wishes of children whose families can’t quite make it alone.
Santa and his army of civilian elves deliver a Christmas to remember made possible by the generosity of the community. Local doctors and dentists have quiet toy drives, asking patients to help any way they can. Fraternal organizations come forward with bicycles. Clothing stores give what they can. A sporting goods store gives sleeping bags – a warm and safe place for those that share a room without a bed. Local grocery stores add food, soft drinks, fresh baked cookies, and, of course, candy canes.
To make Santa’s Christmas Eve trip a reality, volunteers work in an unheated building on the back side of a vacant strip mall. They sort and stack like items that are donated from so many anonymous sources. Then they build a picking list of things kids ask for in their hopeful letters to Santa Claus. Letters come from schools with more than their share of kids who eat because of a school lunch program.
Another layer of volunteers collect those "Letters to Santa" which say they want: towels for my sister and brother and me so we don’t have to share one; a warm coat for my older brother who walks me to school so he won’t be so cold. A used car for Dad so he can drive to his job. Socks, please. Something pretty for Mom to make her smile. Not many toys are requested by these children whose observant eyes assess the real needs of their families who have been financially damaged by unemployment, divorce, illness.
The process continues as more volunteers show up all during December to wrap those presents individually – my family can attest that wrapping is not one of my specialties. But more about my part later. As Santa’s helpers wrap, they consult the pick lists for each family, label who is to receive the present, and carefully slip the presents into a black plastic bag marked with a route number. Depending on the size of the family, several bags are filled. They are put in neat rows in the giant secret North Pole warehouse donated for this staging purpose by a commercial real estate company.
Another platoon of elves go through all the rows and confirm the paperwork is correct for each family and route. Yes, this volunteer operation is exact in their paperwork. Every delivery has a packet with kids’ names and ages. street address, telephone number for each household. There are maps and directions. Every wise Elf Helper who drives his assigned Santa brings a a magnifying glass for double checking the map and a flashlight to locate house numbers in parts of town where the street lights are shot out. This year our Elf Helper had a GPS navigation device – WOW! So helpful in unfamiliar neighborhoods.
A GPS system jumped to the front of our own Christmas want list. At that moment, what we were doing and why hit home. Our wish emphasized the difference between Santa, his helpers, and the families he was visiting. We have enough that our wants are for electronics, not for essentials.
Throughout the year, throughout the city, Helpers come together with a single purpose – to bring joy to those less fortunate. They set the stage for Santa – or as you’ll see, for Santas. Would-be Santas who walk in off the street to make sure deliveries go out – tall, short, big, small, young, old, beardless or with fully grown beards. No one asks their race, religion, or creed. Some bring their Bright Red Once a Year Suits with white trim. Others will wear those supplied by the organization. Some lucky gentlemen come in with their perfect-for-the-occasion selves, with absolutely natural and perfectly coiffed beard and hair.
The rest of us pull a complete outfit off the rack. Additional facial hair is provided for those among us who are not so luxuriously groomed with our own white hair. There is the mandatory pillow and apron to hold it on to those of us not endowed with a belly that giggles like a bowl full of jelly. The red pants look too short, the black faux-boot-tops cover our tennis shoes. Elastic loops hook over our ears holding the beard that tastes awful all night. The cap has white nylon curls that scratch your neck. We slip into the red furry coat and black vinyl belt, then stand in line for the makeup helpers to make our cheeks rosey and our skin itch.
But it is the Elf Helpers who do the heavy lifting, loading their SUV sleighs and rented moving vans with those bulky numbered bags and bicycles. Elf Helpers are what make the jolly ole man in red look good in front of the surprised children and their amazed parents. Elves scout out the apartment complex and rows of houses lit only by the reflection of a TV screen. They travel in the dark of Christmas Eve night on streets and in neighborhoods they would not think of driving through in the daytime.
Santa Claus has a special bag with extra toys because each visit is an excursion into destroying the best laid plans. There are households where a extra kid or three are there when jolly Saint Nick shows up. Or the neighbor sitting alone in their wheelchair folding clothes in the cold communal laundry room. Santa’s special bag is filled with items that diffuse potential trouble from residents fearful of strangers in their territory. The tough guy looked down protectively from the upper apartment stairs, but melted into a radiant smile when Santa tossed him a plush toy and said "Merry Christmas". A few sweets for the load of loud teenagers cruising by and acting tough – Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster would be proud seeing their faces light up with wide smiles as Santa tossed them a wink and a bag of cookies.
The knock on the door, the peek out the window, loud voices from inside challenging Santa with: "Who are you, what do you want?" The answer back through the tightly closed door says: "It is Santa Claus and I came to wish you a Merry Christmas." The cautious person inside says quizzically: "WHO?" Santa then asks for the children by name from the backup information all those volunteers put together. The door is immediately pulled open and wondrous eyed kids break into shy smiles.
Santa then reaches into the bag he carried in with him. All the time the Elf Helpers are quietly out of sight loading anywhere from two to ten bags and a few bicycles outside the entry. Sometimes a parent will break down in sobs and say in disbelief: "Where are you from?" Santa’s answer is always, "the North Pole". Then they press: "No, who are you with, the Welfare Department, our church, or did so-in-so send you?" The answer to that is simply "I’m from the North Pole where people care about you and your family."
Passing out the gifts is such a joy for all the Santas. Each gift has a child’s or adult’s name on one side of the wrapped package. On the other side is what is in the package. Clearly Santa’s Elf Helpers are not related to Dr. Suess’ Grinch that Stole Christmas. There are toys for the little ones and the big ones too. The 19 year old, six foot, four inch taciturn young man suddenly breaks into a giant grin and says "Thank you very much" when he is handed a present, and blushes as his mother takes his picture with Santa.
When there are lots of kids in the home and lots of bags, Santa has the resident children help pull presents from each bag. Like a drill sergeant, Santa makes sure each kid pulls out presents and reads the name and hands it to the right person.
If nobody is home when Santa and his hidden entourage of helpers arrive, the bags are returned to the secret North Pole warehouse location, and a note is left on the family’s door. On Christmas Day, new volunteers man the North Pole answering the calls of perplexed parents who missed Santa’s visit. Then the bags are loaded into cars and pickup trucks for delivery. No Santa costumes after Christmas Eve – Santa only gets out one day a year. He leaves behind just a nice person who takes time out of their busy lives to help a family have a joyful Christmas day.
There is a reason I have not named the group of volunteers. They wish to remain anonymous and simply answer their phones as "The North Pole". Like the mailman, neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow keeps Santa and his helpers from their cherished tasks. This year, thankfully, it was only very, very cold.
As the editorial appearing in the September 21, 1897, edition of The (New York) Sun asked, "Is There a Santa Claus?" we agree with the more famous "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus". Some say "He’s not real," but Santa lives in the hearts of us all. Humanity thrives on myths and loves fantasy. So in helping one another without asking for thanks, we prove that Santa IS real.
P.S. When you send your next letter to Santa, family and friends, you might want to use a true gift that keeps on giving – UNICEF cards and gifts which help children in need.
P.P.S. If you want to give your children the best gift possible, take them to see the real Santa. Must we warn you, the day there ends at 2PM, so Christmas eve 2012 will start around lunch time.