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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

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Saturday, December 21, 2013

From Behind the Beard*

The author...um...behind the beard!

*Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat
December 25, 2010
as "Santa Memories Always Special"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

For 17 years, I've been privileged to be a Santa. What started out as a favor to a friend has become an unforgettable part of Christmas.

It is safe to say that there is no more recognizable symbol anywhere in America, perhaps the world, than the bearded jolly old elf in red and white. From the youngest toddler, to the oldest centenarian, all recognize Santa for who he is and what he represents. For kids, he is unconditional love, and perhaps a moral and ethical rudder.  That hearty "Ho! Ho! Ho!" never fails to lift spirits and bring smiles.  He always brings gifts. You never know what it'll be, but like the Wells Fargo Wagon from "The Music Man," "..it could be somethin' very special just for me!"

One of my special Santa memories occurred, oddly enough, in the middle of summer.

It was a hot, humid miserable Missouri July afternoon.  I was cruising the aisles of Target, searching for a few items when I saw them.  

A young girl, perhaps 5 or 6, in desperate need of a nap, was howling and crying while trying to extricate herself from the shopping basket. The mom, who also needed a nap, was nearing the end of her rope.  The Mom's mounting desperation sparked my compassion.  I walked past the cart, and catching Mom's eye, I smiled and winked. I then skirted around the end of the aisle and let loose with a booming "Ho! Ho! Ho!" The girl went dead silent and the Mom, right on top of things, responded, "See? He's ALWAYS watching!" I meandered back into the aisle to see the girl, now wide-eyed and silent, her head spinning, looking for Santa. The Mom smiled her weary thanks and headed for the checkout.

On another occasion, I was in costume enroute to a company party.   When people are driving on the highway, we seem to be in something of a trance, our eyes fixed in what Marines call "the thousand-yard stare." As I would pass other cars, the drivers, upon recognizing the suit and beard, would undergo a marvelous transformation. Their faces would light up with the most joyous of smiles. Somehow, just the sight of Santa made their day. Even the stern Highway Patrolmen would crack a small grin.

Kids are the best part, because they know instinctively about giving and joy.  Spending time with the young, with their bright eyes full of wonder brings the spirit of the season back, dissolving the cynical, the jaundiced, and the jaded feelings that accumulate during the normal wear and tear of life. And you don't have to wear the suit to re-discover this; all you need to do is pay attention to them.

I can't deny the joy this portrayal brings to me. Being Santa is more than putting on the costume.  You have to also put his character in your heart.  And that's important.

I remember reading an actor’s interview in which he was talking about "the integrity of the character" in his roles. The interviewer asked what he felt the toughest role was. He thought for a moment, and said, "Santa Claus, because he holds in his hands the heart of every child."  Being behind the beard is not just a job.  It’s a sacred trust.

Kids love Santa because they know that love is given back.  He listens to them; he cares for them; he makes them feel special.  In a world filled with strangers, every kid knows they have a personal relationship with St. Nick.

I was manning a Santa Hut in downtown Fulton, Missouri one evening.  I saw a car pull in and as I leaned forward, I could see a small figure literally bouncing off the roof. The door opened and a boy about 8 or so, shot out of the car like a dolphin.  He made for the hut at a dead sprint, leapt up the stairs, and skidded to a stop in front of me, he face flushed, and his little chest heaving.  A bit non-plussed by this display, I found myself momentarily at a loss for words.  He supplied them:

"Well? Was I good???"

And you know, it doesn't matter how young or how old we are, we're still asking that question. And from behind the beard, the answer is always "YES!"

Merry Christmas!
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