December 9, 2003
Wesley, Doncaster East
One year Lee Henschel was working as a volunteer among retarded adults. Some-one was needed to play Santa. His co-workers held a contest. He was chosen – maybe because of the round metal-frame glasses he wore. He knew and they knew that he just didn’t have the characteristics of the jolly, generous Saint Nicholas. As he says, he probably got the job because they hoped he might act a bit more Christmassy.
The people for whom he was to play Santa worked in the activity centre at which he was doing volunteer work. They lived in a halfway house for the mildly disabled. Those who developed adequate social skills left the group home and went off to live independently. Those who actually got worse went off to a more institutionalised setting. Because his girl-friend worked in the halfway house he knew some of the people who lived there and worked at the centre.
The party at the activity centre was scheduled for noon a couple of days before Christmas. Lee got dressed in his Santa suit and picked up his bag of small, wrapped gifts he was supposed to give out.
As he walked in the door of the centre, he found himself trying to adopt the Ho Ho Ho persona of Santa Claus. Right away he got a sinking feeling that he wasn’t doing too well. A nineteen year-old came up and scoffed, “You’re not Santa Claus!” Then, apparently having second thoughts, he moved in closer. Putting his face a couple of inches from Lee’s, he asked, “You’re not, are you?
Lee responded, as best as he was able, “I most certainly am, young man!” He seemed satisfied.
A little later, that same young man returned to tell Lee that he was going to commit suicide. Lee was taken aback and wondered if that was the sort of privileged information that any other Santa had ever had. He thought about saying, “Why don’t you wait until you open your gift,” but found himself murmuring something like “Maybe you shouldn’t do that!”
A woman in her fifties with a shuffling gait and the undisguised curiosity of a child came up to him, Her name was Mary. Lee knew her, but hidden behind snow-white whiskers, bulked up as Santa Claus, dressed in his red suit, he found she just didn’t recognise him.
They looked into each other’s eyes, and Lee realised she never for a moment doubted that he really was Santa Claus. Then with absolute sincerity and simplicity she began singing to him. He’s often tried to recall the song she sang, but he can’t. Maybe it’s because it’s not important. What did make the occasion memorable was the way she sang it. Standing before him in the body of a fifty-year-old was a child whose voice rang with sweetness and poignancy – because she actually believed she was singing to Santa Claus.
The incident has stayed vividly in Lee’s mind, because Mary reminded him that in our culture Christmas is about belief. Children believe in Santa Claus and his ability to grant their wishes. Adults have Christ and the belief that by following his teachings they will be fulfilled in this life and rewarded in the next.
Some years ago now, he became quite cynical about Christmas, and especially about the commercialisation of the whole Christmas season. The he began thinking. “What if there were no Christmas? What if we never had a special time to think about the place that peace, love and goodwill have in our lives?”
Whenever he starts feeling humbug about Christmas, he thinks about Mary and the look of belief in her eyes. He says it’s always enough to make him start believing in Christmas again.
 Ron DelBene, May & Herb Montgomery. Christmas Remembered. Upper Room Books: Nashville. 1991. p. 159-60.