“Dad, that’s not the real Santa.” my five year old son Mike whispered.
“How do you know?
“I tested him. I asked him what you do for a living and he didn’t know.” Mike looked up at me as if he had uncovered a big secret and was the only one who knew it.
It was 1983 as we walked through a local family run store. One of the owners was dressed up as Santa, greeting customers.
“You’re right, Mike. That’s one of Santa’s helpers.” I replied, “If you want to meet the real Santa Claus, he’ll be in town next week. I’ll take you to see him.” Then I cringed when I realized what I had said.
I joined my hometown police department shortly after Mike was born, and knew one of our retired juvenile detectives took on the role of Santa every Christmas. He was really one of Santa’s helpers, but he wore the persona of Santa perfectly. He didn’t have white hair or a real beard, but when he put that suit on, something magical happened. He became Santa like no one else did. He had a slow, calm demeanor and interacted with kids on their level, treating them as little human beings like Santa Claus himself would.
He joined the department before I was born, and was the Santa I knew and visited as a child. Each winter, his little house appeared near the railroad depot. I’d check the newspaper for details of his arrival and wait for him. He always came to town in style, as Grand Marshall of his own parade! The police would block the streets and crowds would gather. Then, after what seemed like forever, we’d hear sirens and bells as he rounded the corner, sitting atop a bright red fire engine, waving at everyone! The firemen would drive him to his house, where he would begin taking visitors.
He retired from the police department in 1981. I was a newer officer then, and didn’t interact with him much, other than to say hello when I saw him come and go from the police station. After he retired, he kept his role as Santa, but I wouldn’t see him again until two years later, with my kids after our visit to the store where Santa’s helper flunked Mike’s test.
The following weekend, I took my two boys to meet him. As we waited in line watching our breath that cold winter evening, Mike told me he would know for sure if this was the real Santa, because he was going to test him, too. I again assured him we were going to meet the real Santa Claus. I was a little nervous that “Santa” might not remember me due to my limited contact with him that ended two years earlier. Part of me regretted creating this “do or die” moment. I hoped it would all work out.
When it was our turn, I said “Santa, you remember Mike, don’t you?” He nodded and put him on his knee. Mike wasted no time, asking, “Santa, what does my dad do for a living?” Santa glanced up at me through his gold wire rimmed glasses, then looked back at Mike and said, “Why Michael, your daddy is a policeman.”
My heart soared as Mike’s jaw dropped in amazement, and I felt the spirit of Christmas radiating in the bright smile he beamed. At that moment, we both knew that we were in the company of Santa Claus. Both Mike and three year old Steve had a great visit with him, and we talked about that night for years to come.
I ran into that retired detective years later. He downplayed his role as Santa when I shared the story of that night with him. He seemed uncomfortable being the center of attention. Over the course of his Santa career, he created thousands of magical moments for the kids he spent time with. I’m forever grateful for the one he shared with us, one cold Friday evening in his little downtown house when the three of us met the real Santa Claus.