Old pros offer children the chance to wonder
Salem resident Alan Phair has been playing Santa Clause for more than four decades and he has a theory about the role.
"You don't play Santa, you are Santa," said Phair. "If you can get a kid to believe for one more year, and keep that innocence alive, you've done something really important."
For Phair and other seasoned Santas who have years of experience listening to kids and their Christmas wishes, their red suits and holiday memories are among their most valued possessions. But like other traditions, visits with Santa have changed over time. Today, kids climb up on Santa's lap with different hopes and ideas than their parents had when they visited with Saint Nick.
"When I first started doing it, kids were a little easier to please," said Phair. "Their expectations were different. Now, so many kids have iPhones and iPads, when it comes to gifts, what can you give them?" High-tech gadgets and elaborate video game systems with attachments and game cartridges that cost more than some weekly paychecks have been a headache for Santas everywhere.
"In the past, when I asked kids what they wanted, it used to be a simple toy truck or a car," said Litchfield resident and Lions District Governor Wayne Auger. Auger has about 33 seasons as a Lions Santa under his wide black belt. "Now, things have gone high tech, and kids want cell phones and Playstations."
Even with smaller, more modest requests, it has become a challenge to keep up with the fast-paced world of toy merchandising.
"There are so many new little toys based on cartoons," said Auger. "If you don't watch Cartoon Network, you don't know what they're asking for."
And just as the wishes for toys have given way to requests for upgrades in personal technology, dreams of a Christmas puppy have expanded into visions of holiday livestock.
"Some little girls still like My Little Pony, but today, more kids ask for ponies - live ones," Auger laughed.
Both Phair and Auger have grown into their Santa roles over the years.
Phair had just returned home from a tour of duty in Vietnam when he agreed to fill in for another Santa who couldn't make it one night.
"I weighed about 125 pound soaking wet," he recalled. "I was embarrassed by the Santa outfit and I had a lousy beard. It was difficult, but I got through it."
But once a Santa, always a Santa and Phair was soon making Christmas visits to Cub Scout packs and different local charities, especially the Knights of Columbus.
"I spent more than $500 on a Santa suit that's traditional old-bloody red with a lot of nice fluffy fur," he said adding that over time he needed less padding to fill it out.
Auger also invested mightily in a top-of-the-line Santa suit and long white wig. But he now relies on his own full white beard for an added touch of authenticity.
Phair and Auger both say there's been a real advantage to sticking with the job and coming back and to see kids Christmas after Christmas.
"I've watched kids grow up, and to them I was Santa," said Phair. "I looked the same and I had the same voice year after year."
Auger also said that consistency goes a long way toward dispelling doubts about Santa. And it's even better when memories are ramped up and Santa is able to recall the names of individual kids.
Auger said that's when you see jaws drop and some Christmas magic setting in.
Still, over time, Santas have seen kids have become more savvy and skeptical.
"Kids used to come to see Santa up until they were 9 or 10, easy," said Phair. "Now, I still see some 7 or 8-year-olds."
And the Santa fan base has not only gotten younger, it is also more worldly wise.
"Kids will sit on your lap and tell you almost anything," said Phair who, like most Santas, has listened to heartbreaking stories and wishes.
"I had one little boy who I will never forget," he recalled "I asked him what he wanted for Christmas, and he said, "I want to die.'" Phair doesn't remember exactly how he replied, but he quickly told other people who had organized that particular event that they needed to do something to help. He learned later that the boy was a victim of child abuse.
Some kids have asked Santa to help sick parents or grandparents get better, others want a mom or dad to just be happy. And Santas frequently hear the same Christmas wish from kids with parents who are divorced.
"You get kids, and all they really want is their dads to be home for Christmas," said Phair.
Auger still asks kids if they have been good, if they've brushed their teeth, but he's a little more cautious about asking if they listen to their moms and dads.
"When I've asked kids that, they'll sometimes turn around and say, 'I don't have a dad,'" he said.
Some kids from families who are struggling financially skip the toys and ask for things to help out their parents.
"They ask for everything," said Phair. "New cars, real cars, and houses."
And that's when Phair, who heads up Salem's Christmas Fund, a citywide effort to assist families in need, and Auger, who knows which local families need support through his work with the Lions, put their Santa style into full gear.
Last year, a little girl who needed some costly eye therapy, came to have a photo taken with Santa, and Auger was ready. After the photo, he handed a gift to the girl and the turned and handed a large check to her mom.
"It was pretty emotional," said Auger who added the child's sight has improved thanks to the care.
Phair has become an expert at recognizing families who need help, but are reluctant to ask. And he makes sure there's a turkey on the table and gifts under the tree in the homes of families who were resigned to forgetting about Christmas.
Both Phair and Auger value opportunities to help but what they love most about their secret Santa identities is their power to keep childhood alive, especially for kids who seem to be on the verge of losing it.
Auger was making a round of Santa visits to friends who were having house parties when he came face-to-face with a little girl who had decided it was time to stop believing.
But when she saw Auger at her door with a gift, she looked genuinely amazed.
When her father reminded her she didn't believe in Santa anymore, she casually said, "That was last year, Daddy."
"It was a great" said Auger. "It was another moment when you see the magic of Santa."