Christmas spirit in a Santa suit

We leave this building the morning of Christmas Day with a glow,” says one Calgarian. “No one can explain it…” Jim Hayes is speaking of a Christmas program designed to lift the spirits of those experiencing loneliness or indeed despair. Seeds for The Magic of Christmas program sprouted in 1980. Bob Johnson’s family was facing a sad Christmas: His wife was in hospital, his family’s mood was rock bottom and some close friends were experiencing a rough time, too — their marriage was going through a bad patch.

Johnson and his two small daughters found appropriate gifts — and costumes. Dressed as Santa and disguising his girls as elves, they crossed the street and rang their friends’ doorbell late that Christmas Eve. The startled neighbors opened their door to Santa and his helpers. “I reminded them that, with no fireplace, I couldn’t use their chimney,” laughed Johnson. Once inside, he distributed the gifts and left.

The next day when Johnson invited the same couple over for coffee, he realized he and the girls hadn’t been recognized at all the previous evening as they recounted their heartwarming story about a stranger who had cared enough to sit them on Christmas Eve. Afterward, both husband and wife admitted they had talked together until dawn, and resolved to give their marriage another try.

“It turned their lives around,” remembers Johnson. “But, more importantly for me, it turned my family’s life around.”

The following Christmas seasons, Johnson and his girls visited others in need of a dose of festive cheer. Soon the list grew beyond anything they could handle, so help was drafted. Charlie Russell was the first friend to offer help, and together that year they visited 50 homes and three shelters. Now a veteran Santa, Russell says he and many others who’ve joined the cause draw their motivation to help from their experiences. And as time passed and news of the group’s work spread, more people began to lend a helping hand.

Johnson fondly recalls a Christmas visit to a hospital children’s ward where he was greeted by a small boy’s joyous whoop. “Santa! How did you find me? I didn’t tell you I was here!”

Many of those who’ve benefited from a “Santa” visit from the program have even joined its ranks. President Jamie LeBlanc puts it succinctly, “We recruit all tender hearts.”

Last year approximately 150 volunteers were dashing about — doing everything from answering phones to making costumes to cleaning used toys. Santas and elves appear at family or corporate Christmas parties who in turn reciprocate with money or gifts for Santa’s Workshop.

Teams visit schools where children learn about the program and become involved by making Christmas cards, delivered along with gifts on Christmas Eve.

“It’s a great thing to do for your family, for yourself, and for anyone out there who needs a boost, especially this time of year,” LeBlanc declares.

LeBlanc and his wife Marilyn had for some time been frustrated with Christmas commercialism. Then they heard Bob Johnson on the radio. “For me,” says Marilyn, “it put Christ back into Christmas.” This season is their fifth with the program.

Warehousing, phones, supplies and vehicles are donated by individuals, groups and businesses. Last Christmas Eve five City transit buses with volunteer union drivers arrived, joining forces with four other buses and vans, each bus carrying a navigator, a coordinator, a Santa, four to six elves plus several people to restock Santa’s bag. Last year alone, The Magic of Christmas touched over 5,500 Calgarians.

The program doesn’t address poverty — other organizations do that. Its goal is to lift the spirits of the lonely and heavy of heart, the visits and small gifts reminders that someone out there cares.

Favorite gifts? Children and adults alike love stuffed toys. A note from a woman whose terminally-ill husband had been given a stuffed toy the Christmas prior to his death, mentioned the comfort he received from it, and enclosed money for a similar toy for someone else.

Barbara Forster and her husband became involved three years ago. She remembers their first impressions when they pulled up to Santa’s Workshop at six a.m. Christmas day.

“A man our age — and that’s not young — was in a Santa suit bouncing like he was on springs.” His enthusiasm was contagious, and the Forster’s ended up doing an extra shift.

The Magic of Christmas relies entirely on volunteers, some of whom serve on the Board of Directors. A committee assesses the needs that come to them from a variety of sources. In all cases, personal privacy is protected — those doing the Christmas Eve trips know the names and ages of children and names of patients to be visited, plus their addresses. Nothing else.

This one-of-a-kind program is about loving, caring and sharing. These generous Calgarians feel bound together in a single purpose, the spreading of joy — and it’s a wonderful way to celebrate the true meaning of Christmas.

For more information about The Magic of Christmas, call Charlie Russell at (403) 256-7546.