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Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Christmas, Santa and a Boy's Dying Wish...

Eric Schmitt-Matzen, aka Santa Claus... 
I'll admit it.  I'm a sucker for Christmas stories.  Every year, there's a heartwarming story or song that really touches my heart (to the point where I find myself quietly sobbing and people coming up to me to see if I'm alright).  The Christmas Shoes by NewSong comes to mind.

This year, it was the story of a dying boy and Santa, Eric Schmitt-Matzen, the bigger-than-life Kris Kringle impersonator from Knoxville, Tennessee (he's six-feet tall but weighs in at 310 lbs), who made the boy's wish come true; to make it to Christmas before he died.

Although, God called the five-year-old home before the day we celebrate the birth of Christ, he did make it to Christmas, thanks, in part, to the handlebar mustached Santa, a caring hospital nurse and his family.  In fact, not only did the boy live to see Christmas, he died in Santa's arms.

By now, you may have heard the story.  It has been reported in various media outlets.

Schmitt-Matzen received a call from a nurse at a local hospital to tell him that he needed to get there as soon as possible because a boy was not going to make it past that night and his biggest concern was missing Christmas this year.  So, Schmitt-Matzen, who had just gotten home from a day of playing Santa for other kids, immediately sprang into action and scurried over.  

When he arrived, he found a distressing scene and asked the boy's family to leave the room if they were going to cry, because his job was "to make sure he got Christmas," and he didn't didn't want their tears to make him cry as well.

As they left, the boy's mother handed Schmitt-Matzen a gift to give the boy; toys from the animated series PAW Patrol, that he really wanted.  The family went outside and watched tearfully through an Intensive Care window.    

Schmitt-Matzen, who was born on St. Nicholas' Day and has dedicated his life to bringing Christmas cheer to children, says the boy was weak and appeared to be falling asleep.  But, he approached him with the joy of Christmas, as he had done countless times.  His exchange with the boy brings a knot in my throat as I write it:

"What's this I hear you're going to be missing Christmas this year?" he said.

The boy answered meekly, "They say I'm going to die."

"Well, you're not going to miss Christmas!  The elves already had your present.  We knew you wanted this for a long time."


"Sure!" Santa said, as he handed the boy the present.  The boy was so frail that the man had to help him open it.

When the boy saw what it was, Santa saw him smile.

"When you get up to those pearly gates, you just tell them you're Santa's number one elf."

"I am?" the boy asked, as he perked up.

"You sure are.  I'm sure they'll let you right in."

The boy looked at the man, gave him a big hug and said, "Santa, can you help me?" And, then he died.

I can't imagine how difficult this must have been for Schmitt-Matzen but he says he cried all the way home and even considered giving up playing Santa anymore.  It took several weeks before he was able to muster the strength and courage to put on the red suit again.

Some people say that parents shouldn't let their kids believe in Santa Claus because they claim it is perpetuating a lie and giving children false hope in a fantasy that is sure to disappoint.    

I disagree.  Maybe, these people had frustrating experiences growing up but I was raised believing in jolly old St. Nick and he never let me down.

I recall fondly the anticipation of Christmas starting to build after Thanksgiving, the family reunions and Noche Buena parties, as the big day drew near, then the difficulty of falling asleep on Christmas Eve, as I heard rustling noises in the house (I always heard noises!), and knowing that if I peaked, I wouldn't get any presents (that's what my parents told us and I was terrified to even open my eyes!).

As a matter of fact, one Christmas, I think I dreamt I had seen the large bearded figure placing presents under our tree (but, even in my sleep, I only glanced at him briefly, before shutting my eyes immediately and hoping he hadn't noticed me!).  I think it happened the same night that an older cousin, who was visiting from Chicago and sleeping in my bed, wet the bed!

I wholeheartedly believed in Santa Claus.  In fact, I didn't want to listen to any friend that doubted his existence.  I was convinced the red coated man with the white beard was real.  A trip my family took to Chicago when I was about eight or nine convinced me of that.

When we left our home in Port Chester, NY, there were no presents anywhere in sight.  But, when we got back, the gifts were under the tree!  (Later, I learned that my parents pretended to have forgotten something in the house when we were all in the car getting ready to leave and they ran inside and placed all the presents under the tree before we left!)

It took a mean-spirited fifth grade teacher to spoil the fantasy for me, and, even then, I didn't want to believe her.

That fateful night, after the devastating blow at school, I told my mom that a teacher said there was no such thing as Santa Claus, hoping she would set the record straight.  Instead, I guess, she thought I was old enough to know and asked me not to tell my younger brother!  I thought, "Say what?  You mean, he's not real?  How about when we went to Chicago?"

It was then that she told me how my dad and her had pulled it off years before.  When she finished, I pretended it wasn't a big deal, even thought it was.  I'm sure she noticed my disappointment. However, it wasn't to the point, where I was scarred for life or to make me think that I would never make my kids go through it.

I loved the fantasy while it lasted and have passed it on to my children.  But, I digress.

For a terminally ill boy, who was still too young to have reached the age of reason, and who wanted, more than anything, to meet Santa and celebrate Christmas this year, that fantasy, that illusion of Father Christmas may have been the best gift his parents could have given him.

For on that day; the day the boy was meeting God, Schmitt-Matzen brought him the true meaning of Christmas; a taste faith, love and hope, when the boy most needed it.  And, the greatest of these, as St. Paul writes, is love.

It makes me want to believe in Santa Claus again...

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