“I recognize that suit,” I said nonchalantly at the dry cleaner as I was doing business.
There, on a hanger and freshly bagged, was Santa’s suit.
Her eye brows lowered and she looked at me suspiciously. “How do you know that suit?” she asked.
“Well it belongs to Santa,” I said. “Everyone knows that.”
She relaxed a bit and smiled.
“But not everyone knows this Santa,” she sighed.
“Well I do,” I said. She put down her pen. She stared at me.
“C’mere,” she said, pointing for me to follow her to an office.
“You know who Santa is?” she asked. “Who told you?”
“He did,” I replied innocently. “We’ve been meeting for a while.”
I handed her my card and began to explain my experience of the previous two months. It took me a while to convince her that I wasn’t going to tell his secret to anyone.
“I would never do a thing to violate that man’s trust,” she told me. “He’s sworn me to secrecy about that suit.”
It was his routine to bring the suit in for cleaning when it needed it. Instead of using a credit card he always gives her a check – a signed blank check.
That began when she refused payment for cleaning the suit. She said she could not in good conscience ask Santa to pay for his dry cleaning.
She asked him instead to donate the money to a good cause. Because this transaction usually took place after Christmas Santa would claim he was too tired to do it and would she just find someone in town to help with the money?
Over the years she had given his blank check to a shelter, another to the food bank and others to local churches.
In every instance, the $100 check would clear and Santa would follow up with a donation of another check mailed in soon after – a check frequently in the thousands of dollars.
“Frankly that suit requires special handling. I can’t do it here.” She told me.
“So when he called me one day to find out how much it cost to clean it I told him it would be about $100 because it was out of my league. He just hung up and brought in the suit and we started playing these games. He swore me to secrecy about the suit and said that if I told anyone he would have to take the suit somewhere else.”
She sits on the town council. She is also a part-time volunteer librarian.
I could see easily the kindred spirits they were to each other, conducting a private little holiday game all in the name of community service and anonymous giving.
Nothing shocked me about this guy anymore.
I once asked him if he took money for his appearances.
“Never,” he said. “I just couldn’t do that, even if I didn’t have other means. I’m not just saying that. Santa should never take money and should never been seen around money.
Products should not bear his image. Nothing should be sold because of him. That’s why I could never work in a mall or something like that. It runs entirely against my principles.”
I explained to him that I knew many folks who wore the suit because at his age it was the only way they could support themselves.
Many folks, I told him, find themselves retired or forced to retire from other careers and get into this because they fit the part and can’t find anything else.
“I don’t mean to be critical of those people,” he said. “But I could never be one of them. Especially now that I know what being Santa really means.”
I was beginning to understand what he was saying.
Weeks before I was asked to represent him to Rita’s priest and Rita’s children, who all wanted Santa to attend her funeral.
Santa wanted to be there – but just as a face in the crowd.
It put Santa in a spot.
He did not want to attend her funeral in his suit because he didn’t feel that proper respect would be paid to Rita, that he would distract from what the event was all about.
But the priest specifically said that Rita would want him there, that their identity was intertwined since that night at the Church.
Rita loved Santa like a family member.
Santa had no intention of not going to Rita’s funeral.
But in the end it was decided, he would show up in street clothes for the service. And while the priest conducted the last portion of the services he would slip into the Men’s room, change into his suit and then take his place amongst the pallbearers, he being chosen to carry Rita with her sons and grandsons.
The local newspaper wanted to feature the story.
Santa would hear nothing of it and I was tasked with getting them to stay away.
Rita was Catholic. Santa is not and neither is most of the community where she lived.
But they all came. They all wept.
Appropriately it was for the sweet “candy lady”, as she was known, and not because Santa was there.
I didn’t see one child, not one family approach Santa at the cemetery.
His hat was off with the rest of theirs, his face indeed just another in the crowd of admirers who came out of respect for someone who had served the community so very well.
“You’re more one of them than you know,” I told him on the way home.
“I try to tell myself, especially when there is a crowd or a camera present, that it isn’t me they like,” Santa said.
“It’s the suit. It is the position. It is the happy nature, the giving ways, the very heart of Christmas that Santa represents. If you’re not careful, it can go to your head.”
He hit a nerve with me.
I told him of some of the experiences I had over the years and have documented of the feuding professional Santas I know out there.
I told him I was looking for more stories like his to tell – that Santa needed positive promotion and even role modeling for those who portray him.
“Take their names away,” he suggested.
“Tell them to stop using their own names in association with Santa. Tell them to refuse the cash, turn the checks away and get out of the business of Santa and money. When they put on that suit they don’t exist anymore than Santa exists in the minds of non-believers. Being Santa means giving everything – especially your name, your identity and your being. That is when you really start to learn that as Santa, you’re receiving far more than you could possibly give as a human being. To do anything less in that effort is to deny yourself one of the biggest blessings of this life.”
I didn’t know it then but I wouldn’t see Santa again until the heat of summer.
On a warm June day I got a phone call.
Santa wanted to see me – at the hospital.
This is Part IV of our series about a small town Santa known as The Servant Santa. In Part III we saw Santa before a crowd and learned his deep motivation for being as anonymous as possible.