For children who believe, the magic and mystery of Santa Claus is that he remembers.
He remembers your name.
He remembers your wishes.
For the past seven years, Santa Claus — as embodied by a jolly Kriss Kringle from Lee’s Summit — has always remembered to visit the boys and girls who spend Christmas Eve inside the Salvation Army’s emergency children’s shelter.
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This Santa, who prefers not to use his non-Christmastime name, arrives in the dark around 7 p.m. Snow, rain, it doesn’t matter. The children — as many as 20, infants to age 17, who have been removed from their homes because of abuse or neglect — don’t know he’s coming.
Santa insists that he plays no favorites when it comes to children. But speaking from his home Wednesday, in the hours before he would go on his rounds, he conceded that the children at the midtown Kansas City shelter touch a place deep in his heart.
Childhood, ideally, is supposed to be a time of innocence and glad possibilities. Some of these children have been hurt or abandoned.
“I want them to realize that they’re not alone, that someone does care about them,” Santa said in his resonant voice.
A week before he arrives, the children write out wish lists. Often they are for toys and clothes that Santa and his friends, volunteer elves, make materialize using their own means. But sometimes the requests are ones not even Santa can fill.
“I’ve had them tell me before … ‘I wish I had a forever family’ or ‘I wish I could be with my parents,’” Santa said. “I basically say, ‘I wish you could too. But I’m glad I’m here with you tonight so we can share a special Christmas Eve together.’”
He does share it, not with a handful of ho-ho-hos, a toy and a wave goodbye. There are gifts, yes, but he stays. He and the children talk. They gather around him, even the teenagers, and he reads “A Visit From St. Nicholas.” They eat cookies.
“I think for them it is absolute security in knowing that they are not forgotten,” said shelter supervisor Tanya Johannes. “That is their big fear — that nobody will remember them because they are not at home, that they will be forgotten.”
At first, Johannes said, some kids are immensely excited, while others act standoffish or shy away. Then, she said, they see his kindness shining through.
“The generosity of heart and spirit is amazing to us,” Johannes said. “He absolutely looks like the real deal, because he is the real deal.”
It’s not that the Salvation Army sought out Santa to come on Christmas Eve. It was the opposite. Santa appeared to them, having, of course, been a Santa for many, many years, ever since he first donned the suit in 1996 after his daughter was born.
He enjoyed the job of Santa so much, he continued every November and December, doing events and creating a website, kriss-kringle.com, so kids around the world can email Santa their wish lists and he can email them back. Then, at Christmas in 2005, he got a letter he didn’t expect from an 8-year-old girl named Kathleen in Pembroke, Ontario:
For Christmas I would like to get something even my mommy and daddy can’t give me. I want my daddy to get better. He’s been sick for a long time and all I want is for him to get better so he can do things with me and my 2 brothers. I don’t want no toys, all I want is for my dad to get a chair to help him get around so please Santa, answer my letter …
Santa, at a loss, wrote back:
I wish I had the power to help your father get well, but while Santa Claus does have a certain amount of Christmas magic, healing is something only God can do.
Tell me, Kathleen, does your father need a wheelchair to get around or motorized chair of some sort? There is always a chance that we might be able to find something like that for your father.
Isn’t there any toy or gift you would like for Christmas? You are a brave girl with a loving heart and I am so proud of you. If more people in the world were like you, there would be fewer problems and more happy times.
Keep the spirit of Christmas in your heart all year long and pray for your father. I will do the same.
But he didn’t leave it at that.
“That was a turning point,” he recalled.
The girl’s request emboldened him. He reached out to social service agencies in Canada. He contacted Pembroke’s mayor. The story found its way to the town’s newspaper, The Daily Observer, where reporter Tina Peplinskie latched on.
Kathleen’s father didn’t get the motorized wheelchair for Christmas. But it did come three months later, as a March 2006 Daily Observer headline declared: “Her dream comes true: Dad gets his wheelchair.”
It’s been nine years. Every Christmas, Santa said, he still receives a letter from Kathleen.
After that, he said, doing good became both his joy and his mission. This year, he and his elfish helpers were able to give $600 worth of prepaid food cards to a food bank. Meanwhile, he charges nothing to stop by in his incarnation as St. Nick.
Any money he receives as a donation, he said, he passes on to charities or saves to help acquire the gifts for children at places like the Salvation Army shelter.
“I use some of the money I get through the year,” Santa said. “But the elves, themselves, will adopt a child or children and buy them gifts with their own money.”
Santa sometimes is asked why he does what he does and asks for nothing in return.
“I always tell everybody, the joy you receive is the joy you give. … Just spend time with people. Just reach out.”
But the truth is, Santa conceded, there is a moment when he does get paid. Often it will come when he is just about to leave the shelter. Often it comes from a child who, during his visit, might have remained quiet and shy.
“Then, when they find out you’re leaving, they come up to you and give you a big hug and thanks,” he said.
His voice caught with emotion.
“It doesn’t get any better than that.”