Long road.

Charitable visits are a major part of what makes a good Santa. Or, perhaps, what makes Santa good.

You cannot be Santa for the money. If that is your motivation I’d suggest that you get a tank of helium and make balloon animals for birthday parties, do face painting at street fairs, or perform puppet shows in the park. You will still get that performance fix in front of children you apparently need but you won’t have to expend the emotional effort that comes with being Santa.

Nicholas was a Saint. If you are not willing to honor him, and his role as a protector of children, you probably won’t be happy as Santa Claus. I started out as a volunteer for Toys-for-Tots. No pay, bought the suit on my own nickel and ran to the sound of gunfire (well, replaced a bad Santa that had a number of issues that hurt the program’s image.) Most Santa’s cut their teeth on those free visits in the beginning. Most continue to give back no matter how successful they are on the revenue side of the house.

I’ve mentioned before some of the expenses there are in being Santa. But I’ve talked very little about the emotional cost we pay from time to time. This week was the “dig deep” week in my season. I did hospital visits this week. And I’m as close to burned out as I’ve been in quite a while as a result.

Visiting with sick children has a glowing reward that cannot be purchased. You experience the joys of God in new ways. Not just in being aware of how blessed you are in comparison to the people in the hospital, but in the realization that you are able to give them a moment of respite and joy in a very difficult situation. Your heart swells with the smiles of each child. And sometimes it breaks with the tears of a parent who fears their child won’t be leaving the hospital they way they came in the front doors.

As Santa you have to keep up the façade for the children. They don’t want to see Santa crying in the hallway outside their room. I steel myself and turn the rheostat up to full brightness before I get out of the car. And for the next 2-3 hours I try to bring a smile to the faces of patients, staff, and parents whenever I can. Sometimes you cannot.

Sometimes all you can do is quietly stand in the doorway to the room and pray, knowing that God is listening. Sometimes you just set your hand on the shoulder of the grandfather watching this child wither and moan in front of him, hoping that you can transfer a little of God’s love from the air into his ears with a word or a prayer. Sometimes you don’t have a bloody thing to say but to God. And sometimes the words leave you completely.

This week was full of those moments. I visited two hospitals, one with my contingent of United States Marines. I always feel like a fraud traveling around with those guys. I’m honored that they let me into their world for a while. Not just life-takers and heart-breakers, most of the Marines I’ve visited hospitals with are Dads and Moms themselves. And today one of them said something I’ve heard before from those heroes in their dress blues – “I’m not supposed to cry.” This from combat hardened warriors. But those kids get to them in a way that gunfire and gritty meals in the desert never could.

I won’t’ give specifics about what we saw, who we visited, or why it had that impact on us. That’s between us, God, the staff, and the families. But I can say this – it hurts to see people’s dreams crushed. Their hope ripped away. Their worlds collapse. And I was proud to be there to offer a little comfort and encouragement. And I offered a lot of prayer.

I’m out as a Christian. I say things like, “God Bless,” or “Merry Christmas,” and “I’ll be praying for you.” If it means I’m chucked out of the hospital that’s the way it has to be. I don’t evangelize, I don’t proselytize, but I do offer comfort when I can.

And it drains you. Right now I’m dragging. My wife said, “Only 10 events left” before I left for work last night. I almost pitched over in a faint. It’s like being in a 12 step program – one day at a time. I can’t look at 10 events. I have to do them one at a time. Six individual days to go.

So say a prayer for Santa. I’ve prayed more this week than a convent full of nuns could in a month. And it will continue until the 25th at 11 am. His birthday. The end of my attempt to honor him and do his work for this year while wearing a red suit.

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