On Sunday night I went up to the attic and got out my red suit. I had to check it out, to make sure no moths had been at it. It’s a bit battered after all these years, but so am I, so there’s no harm in that. But all the pieces are intact — the big white beard, the leggings that go over my shoes, the huge black belt, and the jacket trimmed with fur and a zip that goes up to my chin.
When I got the suit originally, dunno how many years ago now, there was padding in the box — the sort that gives you a fine big belly to go with a deep voice. But for some odd reason, I’ve never needed the padding. The suit fits just fine without it.
No false modesty here. When I put that suit and beard on, I look the part. But as good as the suit is, I do know that I’m still a pale imitation of the real thing. It’s only because the big man has to conserve his energy for one enormous night of global travelling that he needs impersonators like me to let children know that he’s on his way.
So over the next couple of weeks I’ll get to meet children in various different projects run by Barnardos, and to spend enough time with each of them to help them to believe, I hope, that Santa Claus is 100% on their side.
He really manages, year after year, to do impossible things in inexplicable ways. He defies the laws of physics in the way he travels, he has uniquely managed to make time stand still in order to get his job done, he has found a magical way of carrying an endless supply of presents in a tiny and rickety sleigh. As old as he is, he has endless stamina and good humour. I’m telling you, if you ever get to meet him face to face, he will be exhausted. But the thing you’ll remember for ever is the twinkle in his eye.
If I’m being totally honest, I went through a long period in my life when I dismissed Santa Claus.
But I was wrong.
I see the evidence year after year and the truth is, no matter how hard a year it has been, no matter how little there is in the household, Santa Claus always, somehow, makes it. He doesn’t just bring gifts. He brings hope too.
I see it in the children I meet, in the wide eyes when Santa Claus walks into the room.
The vast majority of children know that this is a moment they’ve been waiting for. Will he come, can I talk to him, can I tell him what I want for Christmas, will he listen?
A couple of years ago — and forgive me if I’ve told this story before, because I’ve never been able to forget it — I met two little girls with the saddest eyes I’ve ever seen. They were beautiful, and beautifully dressed in their Sunday best to meet Santa Claus. I didn’t know when I met them, but found out later, that these two little girls lived in a house where there was a lot of poverty, but also domestic violence from which they and their mum had suffered almost since the day they were born. You could see in their eyes, and in their tiny quiet voices, that these were children who weren’t used to being respected.
But Santa Claus respected them. Of course he didn’t talk about the things that had caused so much damage in their lives. Instead he talked about what the future might bring, and about how really special they were, and about how much their mum loved them.
I know that those two little girls have had a lot of support since then from the team that works in Barnardos, and I know that they have grown in a short time into two confident little girls, able to express themselves in much safer and more trusting surroundings than they were used to.
I know they know that they really appreciated the time Santa spent trying to demonstrate how important they were to him. I like to think it made a tiny difference in their lives.
Over the years, I’ve had the rare and extraordinary privilege of meeting a lot of children in situations like that. The idea that Santa Claus can bring so much hope, and generate so much expectation, of the kind that children have a right to have, is so powerful.
In recent years, and especially since austerity began in Ireland, Santa Claus has needed a bit of help. So great has been the squeeze, even on his vast resources, that it simply hasn’t been possible for him to supply everything on his own.
So here’s what you can do. You’re going to spend some of the next 10 days shopping for the people you love. If your list has five presents on it, add just one more. It can be a toy, but it can also be some food. Then donate that one extra present, or better still, get your children to donate it. You’ll find an organisation locally that can ensure it gets to Santa Claus in time for his huge task.
If you can’t, google GLS Parcel Shops. If you drop a toy into one of their 150 parcel shops over the next couple of days, they’ll get it to us and we’ll get it to him.
Then on Christmas Eve, just have a listen. Last thing at night, when everything is quiet, turn off all the lights and step outside for a minute. You’ll hear the sleigh bells if you listen hard enough. You’ll see that gentle glow in the distant sky. He is coming.