For more than a dozen years, blessed with a white beard and a robust torso, I have donned my red suit each December to wander Niagara, visiting homes and businesses — gatherings of all kinds — to kindle a little of the spirit of Christmas.
Some say it is selfless. In truth, I can tell you it is the single most self-serving thing I do. Imagine the joy of having even one young person’s eyes sparkle at the thought that I know his or her name and what they want for Christmas.
It is pure magic.
I just can’t get enough of the sparkly eyes and the questions about Santa Claus and Rudolph and the sleigh and the cookies and the naughty and nice list, all spit out in one excited burst.
And, it is another great joy that all this supports the effort of our local palliative care service, bringing comfort and solace to individuals and families facing life changing medical circumstances.
Over the past decade, Santa’s visits have raised some $25,000 for the effort.
It all started in my late business career almost 20 years ago. Clad in a heavy, somewhat stale-smelling, Santa suit, rented from Malabar’s Costumes in Toronto, I made the rounds of our company and department Christmas parties in the bars and restaurants of the downtown core.
Each visit received a laugh, a drink and not much more. For a would-be Santa looking for the Christmas sparkle, it certainly fell short.
Fast forward to retirement. I knew I wanted to amp up the Santa effort, but wasn’t quite sure how.
I knew where I wanted the donations to go. My mother had received a lot of palliative care support in her last days. My sister, Terry Mactaggart, was the director of the Niagara-on-the-Lake Community Palliative Care service.
The choice was straightforward.
My wife, Kathy (who refuses to become Mrs. Santa), gave me a Walmart Santa suit and I placed my first Book Santa ad in the newspaper.
The response was not overwhelming. Sure, there were excited kids at the fire station, a few appearances at real estate company Christmas parties and we raised a few donations. But I wanted more.
My first stop was Laurel’s Sewing and Alterations in Chautauqua. Laurel Gordon has had a long and illustrious career making anyone wanting sewing skills very happy.
Even creating a personalized Santa suit didn’t faze her. Gordon sent me to Google to look at thousands of Santa pictures to decide what I wanted the suit to look like. Then, to Toronto to buy the fabric she needed.
A few short weeks later, I was walking with a new, energized Santa strut.
Each year in the middle of October, I contact the families and organizations who have used Santa’s services in the past. Not surprisingly, some families age out of the Santa experience.
Other businesses change how they are mounting their Christmas parties. By early November, I’ve exhausted my existing clientele and moved on to new opportunities.
I now have a Santa business card. I have an ever-growing database. I occasionally advertise and post on Facebook. I even have my own email address: email@example.com.
Nowadays, Santa makes close to 30 visits each December. Usually brief and occasionally way too long. But not after Dec. 23.
After that, the children don’t believe Santa isn’t at the North Pole getting ready.
We drive a bright red station wagon. The kids understand that Santa couldn’t arrive for his pre-Christmas visit by sleigh. Not possible. Both the sleigh and the reindeer are obviously getting ready for the big day.
My red station wagon becomes a temporary Summer sleigh and they completely get it.
I have learned to withstand the tugs at my beard from skeptical pre-teens. At most visits, Santa reads a shortened version of Clement Moore’s 19th-century poem “The Night Before Christmas.” The longer version makes the really young ones go a bit squirrelly.
I wear a big skeleton key on a string around my neck. It’s magic. With it, Santa is able to bring gifts to houses that don’t have chimneys.
During COVID, with the help of Niagara College students, we developed an online visit process, straight from the North Pole.
It wasn’t quite the same, but still created some sparkle. It even allowed families separated by the pandemic, gathered by Zoom from all corners of the world, a very special moment with the guy in red.
I’ve arrived by fire engine. I’ve conducted the Niagara Symphony Orchestra. I’ve visited many of the regions assisted living and long-term care homes.
And I’ve rung the door bell of hundreds of homes with children’s noses pressed to frosted windows.
But my greatest happiness is the look on the faces of the true believers. It just doesn’t get any better.
Each year, sometime between Christmas and New Years Day, we add up the cheques donated by Santa
lovers from as far away as Grimsby and Fort Erie.
Bonnie Bagnolo, executive director of our local palliative care service, adds the online donations. And we marvel at just how generous people are.
Just after Christmas, I get most of my beard shorn, pausing for a few months until the spirit comes back.
It always does.