I low key hate Christmas.
The monstrous levels of commercialism. The forced notion of “Happiness” and “Peace on Earth” on what is essentially just another day as we swing around the sun. Plus, the fact that it practically starts the day after Halloween.
I am also painfully aware of how depression levels spike during the holidays, increasing suicide rates. My own depresssion spiked, or sunk, to a new low last year, leading to a mental health crisis that took me the entire year to recover from. It’s an ongoing process that even now, I must work daily at maintaining.
In the midst of all this seasonal ‘fakeness’, I found one thing that helps to stem the tide of rising depression. I volunteer for a charity. I help people as they struggle through their own holiday issues.
I donate my skills as a professional bus driver to operate a city transit bus as it is temporarily transformed into one of Santa Claus’ legendary reindeer and loaded with gifts, plus a bus full of other volunteers dressed as christmas elves. We even have a Santa.
We drive across town, delivering gifts to families that have been nominated by people in the community. These families have been selected because of various reasons: perhaps they have suffered a loss in the family and are still grieving during the holidays, or one or both adults in the family have been laid off and now the family is struggling, on several occasions, we have visited families that have newly arrived to Canada, after making a long and difficult journey.
I volunteer, I say to those who ask, because it’s easy and fun. I merely drive the bus, the other do all the hard work, going into houses loaded with gifts, singing and being merry, and dealing with overly excited children. I say that I enjoy the challenge of driving my bus to locations I am rarely allowed to drive, that I enjoy the test of my skills.
I say these things because it hides a deeper truth.
During my first year as a volunteer for the charity, I signed up as a driver. When the coordinaters saw me, they immediately made an offer that I step up as a Santa Claus. I am a large man, tall and robust. It seemed a natural choice. I felt a great deal of apprehension at the offer, but looking into the eyes of my wife, I felt that the choice had already been made.
I underwent strenuous, vigorous training to become a Santa. It would not be out of place in a comedic montage during a comedy film, finding the right suit, mastering the laugh, learning the songs. It takes a special breed of person to be a Santa, that much is true.
My assignment for that first year was hospitals. Our charity sends a team of Santas plus elves and a massive amount of small, stuffed teddy bears out to all of the hospitals and long term care facilities around the city. Our job was to make sure that every patient gets a delightful stuffed bear and some quality time with Santa and his elves.
For me, it was an intensely difficult time. I am shy and withdrawn in public and this was akin to diving headfirst into the deep end of public scrutiny. The costume helped, as it provided me with a ‘mask’ to hide behind, and a persona as well. I could be “Jolly”, even if I wasn’t actually. I knew then what it must be like to be an actor. My hat goes off to the people of that profession.
But the beauty and dignity I witnessed there has stayed with me all these years later. I was privileged to see all manner of people living as best they can in difficult situations. In the dementia wards, I saw so many people who could barely remember what day, or month, or year it was, but they always recognized Santa as I came in, singing with my elves. Their faces would light up with such joy that my heart broke every time I saw it.
My elves and I would break off and spend time with each person in that wing. We made sure that they each came away with a teddy bear and a hug, or a firm handshake for the non-huggers. We couldn’t stay very long however, we had a lot of people to visit and only a little time to see them all.
One room we entered was unnaturally silent. It was a meeting room, with a long table in the middle. There sat a woman with an elderly man in a hospital gown. The man was staring blankly forward. he didn’t react as I introduced myself, nor acknowledge the teddy bear he recieved. The woman explained that his dementia had taken him to the point of catatonia, he was able to eat and could be led around, but that was the limit. But there was one way that she, his daughter, could still connect with him.
She calmly took out a flute case and set it in front of him and opened it for him. She also took out a matching case and set it up for herself. She then took the flute from his case and handed it to him. Still staring forward, he took the instument and with must have been muscle memory alone, placed his fingers correctly along the flute. She then took up her own flute and began playing a few notes.
At first, there was no response. She began again, and this time, he started to play along! His eyes were dull and lifeless, but his playing was strong and sure. Their music echoed through the halls and several elves were drawn to the room. We watched and were witness to a daughter connecting to her father and it was the most beautful thing we had ever seen.
She did this several times, starting a song, then he would join in. It was wonderful, amazing. I think we were all weeping by the end. Two intruments together, making beautiful music. A rare treasure. We were all busy giving gifts, but we recieved a momentous gift ourselves.
This reason alone is why I no longer volunteer to be a Santa Claus and only offer to drive the bus. I am not strong enough. My heart cannot stand to bear witness to such beauty again, it would break.
Many years later, as my mother spent her last few years in a long term care facility, a Santa came to visit her. She was so excited! He spent some time with her, and left her a cute, cuddly teddy bear. She was so happy, she talked a length about the visit.
I still have a teddy bear from my time as a Santa. I look at it from time to time, and think of the man and his daughter. I also think of my mother. I believe now in Santa Claus, thanks to this charity.