Roxanne Henke

My husband doesn’t like the start of this story. But, he comes around by the end.

For many years, we put up a large Christmas tree in the lobby of our family business. We decorated the tree with glass bulbs, strings of mini-lights and about 80 gift tags. Each tag had the name of a resident living in our local nursing home.

Customers and community members plucked a name off the tree, told our administrative assistant whose name they took and then found a gift for that person. About a week before Christmas, all the gifts were brought back to our business and tucked under the tree. On the appointed evening, some of our staff delivered the brightly wrapped packages to the nursing home.

This is where my husband enters the picture. It was his job to be Santa. It was my job to help him suit up and don the beard. Believe me, you have never heard a “Grinchier” Santa than this one.

He pulled on the extra big, red corduroy Santa pants over his gym shorts, already grumbling about being hot. I held the pillow we brought from home in place, while he shoved his arms into the red corduroy jacket. He grabbed the 4-inch-wide black plastic belt and cinched it around the whole getup, grumbling under his breath, “How do I get roped into this every year?”

By now, the activities director poked her head into the “dressing room” to see if Santa was almost ready. No. But he was HOT. I held the white wig and beard. Santa would complain, “I’m not putting those on until the last second. They are so hot. And itchy.” I reminded him the nursing home dining area was already completely full of waiting residents. He, already in a sweat, would say, “Just wait.”

Wait for what? SANTA? That’s YOU!

I reached to stretch the elastic of the mustache/beard face covering over his head. He pulled back, as if I was holding fluffy, itchy poison.

He furrowed his brow at me, as if I was the person who roped him into this. Believe it or not, he volunteered. With a deep breath, he let me plop Santa’s white hair on his head and bobby pin the red hat onto the fake hair. Grabbing a string of jingle bells, he (finally) strode down the hall.

“HO! HO! HO!” His deepened voice echoed down the hall, not containing an inkling of Grinchness.

“HO! HO! HO!” he boomed again, as he entered the dining room where all were waiting. Even the hard of hearing perked up at the familiar Christmas sound. As Santa made the rounds, shaking hands and holding hands, Christmas carols were played on a nearby piano. Gifts were opened. Men and women, once active members of our community and many in wheelchairs, seemed flabbergasted Santa knew them by name.

“Merry Christmas, Marion,” Santa said, taking her hand.

“How do you know my name?”

“Ho, ho, ho. I know you. Have you been good this year?”

With a twinkle in her eyes, Marion replied, “Good enough.”

Santa squeezed her hand and laughed.

With a loud, “Merry Christmas, everyone!” Santa made his exit.

This scene played out much the same for years. But one Christmas, the activities director asked if Santa would stop in the new Alzheimer’s wing. Absolutely.

She buzzed us into the unit. There sat a handful of residents, most slumped and staring at nothing.

Santa paused in the doorway, taking in the unexpected scene. He took a deep breath, shook his bells and stepped into the room. “HO! HO! HO! Merry Christmas!”

Almost every head lifted and turned toward him.

“Santa!” called a feeble voice.

“SANTA!” yelled another one.

Voices across the room called to him. Hands reached to touch his. People who may no longer know their spouse or their children knew Santa.

After that Christmas, my husband rarely grumbled when donning his gear.

Now, let me go back in time. I was perhaps 6 years old, playing a lively game of “Old Maid” on the floor of my cousin’s living room. Out of the blue, her brother said, “Santa isn’t real.”

What? Not saying a word, I put down my cards and walked the two blocks home. I had a lot to think about. I don’t remember talking to my parents about the revelation I’d just heard. Somehow, I knew it was true. I wasn’t upset. Now I was “in” on the surprise and marvel of Santa Claus.

Over the years, I’ve seen the joy and wonder Santa brings. In the eyes of those older people, I saw the long-lost memories Santa carries.

“Is Santa real?” Real enough, my friends, real enough. And that’s good enough for me.

Roxanne Henke still fills Santa stockings for her grown children (and grandkids) when they “Christmas” in North Dakota. You can contact Mrs. Claus at