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Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Remembering Santa's Helpers

It's a question that the more astute kids have been asking for some time now – how, exactly, does Santa do it? How could he make all those appearances in downtown department stores and at shopping malls and office parties and churches and school programs and nursing homes, not to mention the innumerable television commercials and shows and movies, while still finding the time to makes a bazillion toys in response to at least an umptillion letters from a jillion kids, each filled with personal requests for gifts, all written in one month's span of time? Whew! It makes me tired just thinking about it!
So, what's the Super-Big-Guy's secret?

Well, I just happen to know the answer to this, and how I know comes from personal experience. Santa has helpers, and I don't mean the elves. Sure, those funny, pointy-eared little ones are useful -- even necessary -- when it comes to toy fulfillment, but they could not possibly pass for Santa himself. No, I am referring to the untold numbers of good sports around the world who are willing to don chin whiskers, pillows, woolen red suits with short-ish pants and shiny, knee-high boots, all for the sake of kids. These guys are the real heroes.

Personally, I've known a few of them. It all started back in 1960, if I remember correctly. I was a typical nine-year-old with two younger brothers, and we were really excited because THERE WAS SNOW for Christmas that year! Even though we didn't have a fireplace, just having snow surely upped the odds that Santa would make it to our little town that year.
The closest I could come to a photo from that era -- this was a couple of years earlier.
That was also the year that a bit of skepticism began to creep into my attitude about Santa. I had secretly begun to have doubts but kept up a facade for the sake of the younger ones (and because there was a certain doll I really wanted and needed Santa to bring.) Hope springs eternal, and all that ...
Our family always got together on Christmas Eve, and this year was no exception, with grandparents and even some great-grands joining us for dinner in our little house across the street from the school. A couple of days earlier we'd cut a cedar tree off Dad's farm, and he and Mom had wrestled it into an upright position in the unwieldy tree stand. The tree stood in front of our window facing the street, its decorations -- a string of electric lights, a few Shiny Brite colored bulbs, silvery tinsel and garland -- a beacon for Santa. We crossed our fingers that he would recognize this as a home of hopeful children.

Mom and the grandmothers were taking what seemed like an endless amount of time with the supper dishes, as my brothers and I fidgeted and waited. The grandmothers had brought a few presents, and we were going to open them. Suddenly, a booming knock on the door brought us running -- who could it be?

The front door opened, ushering in a swoosh of cold air, and the doorway filled with the frame of a towering, broad-shouldered man dressed in red. "Ho, ho, ho!", his voice boomed, as a tiny woman, also dressed in red, peeked from behind him, "Meeeeeeery Christmas!"
Greg and I were positively awestruck. Kim, only three, was terrified and hid behind Mom. Here was Santa, in our living room, bearing gifts! It was a dream come true! A bouncing horse for Kim, a bike for Greg, and yes, there was my longed-for Pollyanna doll, tall and beautiful and ready to play with me! Mr. and Mrs. Santa's appearance was simply magical and made that Christmas truly memorable.
In time I recognized that the jolly couple who were Santa's helpers that year were generous with the young people of Ozark County in many other ways, as well. Not only did Dr. M.J. Hoermann deliver thousands of healthy babies in his clinic in Gainesville, he and his beloved wife, Judy, who had no children of their own, hosted a spook house in a little outbuilding behind their home each year at Halloween. It wasn't a house of horrors but just some deliciously "scary" things they fixed to give little trick-or-treaters a thrill.

The Hoermanns also built a small wading pool behind their clinic for kids to cool off in during hot Ozarks summers, and when they passed away, there was a bequest of land and some funding for our town's first park. I always remember this fine, generous couple whenever our family visits the park, as it continues to provide a fun place to picnic or play, decades after the Hoermanns have been gone.
After I became a parent myself, I remembered how genuinely thrilling it was to have Santa's helper deliver gifts on Christmas Eve. In 1975, we were living in Mississippi but came back to Missouri with our two young children for Christmas. My childhood friend, Larry Wade, was also home from medical school for the holidays and agreed to help. Somehow we procured a Santa suit (I wonder if it was the one Dr. Hoermann wore?) and managed to pad Larry's beanpole frame (all 6'4" and 160 pounds) with pillows enough to resemble the original Santa.

Sarah and Matt with Uncle Larry as Santa
It was deja vu all over again, as on Christmas Eve a hearty "Ho, ho, ho!" sounded at my folks' front door, and Santa magically appeared again. Our two youngsters were wide-eyed with wonder, as a little red wagon for Matt and a tiny pink doll buggy for Sarah were delivered in person! And this time around I realized that the grown-ups in the house, watching with smiles and cheers for Santa, got as much of a kick from his appearance as the little ones did. Larry might have been an improbable choice as impersonator but he did a convincing job, and a second round of memories were made.
Fast forward three decades to another Christmas Eve, and the magic continued. We were living back in Ozark County, and another generation had been added to our family in the form of three grandchildren of our own. This time I'd found a simple Santa suit in pristine condition at a local flea market and had conspired with our neighbor, Thom Holt, to help out. Dinner had been eaten and the yule log cake was being served, when what to our wondering ears did appear but the sound of sleigh bells outside the dining room window!
Pure joy!
Emma, age seven, eyes wide with wonder, caught on quickly. "It's Santa!" she exclaimed as she ran to the door and welcomed him with open arms. Wyatt and Luci, both just two, were a little more reticent but soon were also enveloped with hugs and sharing in the treats Santa passed around. And I really believe the great-grandmas, Bonnie and Julia, enjoyed the unfolding scene as much as the little ones. We still talk about what a special night it was.
Wyatt and Luci aren't quite sure about this fellow!
As Christmas approaches this year, I send up a little prayer of thanks for all those helpers who make Santa's job a little easier -- the ones who ring bells beside red kettles, those who deliver and serve meals to the homeless and helpless, the ones who become secret Santas to shut-ins and those in institutions, and the generous people who sponsor and support toy drives all across the country -- Santa needs them all.

And I remember those three helpers who made Christmas so wonderful and magical for our family down through the years. There is a special red suit packed away for another day and another generation -- someday we'll need it again, and I hope there will be someone to fill it.

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