The Good Book Santa

The Good Book Santa

He’s the real deal (and he’s got a degree to prove it).

Cliff Snider collects letters from children from his mailbox.

Christmas begins early for me.

In the fall I take my red suits out of storage and get them cleaned. Then I start lifting weights and doing crunches. I need to get strong so I can lift kids up on my lap.

By November I bleach the roots in my beard and hair. My hair is a natural gray–what’s left of it, anyway–but to really get it that straight-from-the-North-Pole snowy white, I need a little help.

I get out the little leather-bound book I use for writing down children’s names. But the book, the beard, the fur-trimmed suits, they’re not what make me a real Santa. That comes from something I discovered years ago.

I grew up right here in High Point. I was a shy, overweight kid, the third-string tackle on the football team and third-chair violinist in the orchestra. The kind of guy who was content to stay in the background.

My social life consisted of pizza parties and bowling nights with the church youth group, where I never said much. The one person I really talked to was my father.

Dad was a kind, gentle man who ran the print shop in town. He’d never learned to drive, so he walked everywhere, and some mornings he even walked me to school.

Those mornings were magical. We talked about everything–sports, school, his business, the family. I didn’t need to be Mr. Popular, surrounded by friends, when I had the best friend I could ever dream of–my dad.

Then one Labor Day weekend he rode with my uncle to Camp Lejeune to pick up my cousins who were being discharged from the service. They were hit by an oncoming car. Dad was killed instantly.

I was 15 and determined to be brave and strong for my mother and younger brother. You’ve got to take care of them now , I told myself.

At the funeral service, I held back my tears. It was tough. Afterward, I went back to my routine–football practice, orchestra rehearsal, pizza parties with the Methodist Youth Fellowship.

But I knew life would never be the same. How could it be, without my best friend? Those walks to school were so lonely now, every step a reminder that Dad was no longer at my side.

That December everyone in my youth group was excited about the Christmas party we were putting on for the children at the local mission. The other kids in the group set to making construction paper chains and wrapping presents, but I just sat at the table, not feeling like celebrating.

Our youth leader cornered me. “Cliff, we’ve got a special job for you at the party.” What would I have to do? Lead a game of musical chairs? Play my violin? I didn’t want to be the center of attention when I was barely keeping it together. “We want you to be our Santa this year,” he said.

I couldn’t muster the energy to argue, so I said okay. Maybe our youth leader figured I’d be honored. But I was sure he picked me because I was the fattest kid in the group. Very little padding necessary.

The day of the party I put on the rented red suit and hat, the wig and the fake cotton beard. I pulled the black belt tight around my waist and took a look in the mirror. I could hardly believe what I saw. The awkward 15-year-old was gone.

In his place stood a jolly, smiling, kindly man. A man who reminded me of my father. I tried a quiet, “Ho, ho, ho,” then hoisted the bag of toys onto my shoulder. I was Santa.

It was so easy at the party. I didn’t have to go up to anyone and start a conversation. I sat in front of the Christmas tree, and the kids came to me. My shyness melted away. I felt confident and friendly, like I’d always wished I could be.