Tuesday, December 20, 2011

TOP STORY >> A Christmas story

Leader staff writer

Friday was a big day for little Maddox Shiell of Austin. It was his second birthday and his first time to meet Santa.

Although Maddox was born Dec. 16, 2009, a bacteria infection kept him in the hospital until after what should have been his first Christmas at home. On his second Christmas, he was in the hospital again with respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a highly contagious virus that is prevalent during the winter and very dangerous for small children.

But on his second birthday, he climbed the steps of Santa’s little green and red shack parked in front of Walmart in Cabot, sat on his lap and accepted the candy cane Santa offered.

As it happened, there was a lull in activity and Santa had a little more time to chat before sending the toddler on his way. Enough time apparently to make a connection because Maddox started down the steps to rejoin his mom Cammy Yates and sister Madison Yates but turned back to give Santa a hug and kiss.

Being only 2, he couldn’t talk much, but his mom was sure Santa would bring him an assortment of balls for Christmas: a football, a basketball and a baseball.

Now, a skeptic might say that Santa bore a strong resemblance to Matt Webber, a Cabot mail carrier who is involved in just about every service organization in northern Lonoke County. The voices were similar. But in addition to his jolly disposition and love of giving, Santa is known for his wide girth. And Webber is a slim man who would need at least three pillows to fill out Santa’s red suit.

A frequent Walmart shopper who is also a keen observer would almost certainly notice that Santa’s appearance changes ever so slightly from day to day. Sometimes he is a little shorter, sometimes a little taller and sometimes a lot bigger around.

A cynic might say a dozen or so Santas occupy the brightly painted house on wheels that is parked in front of the Cabot Walmart every December.

But the children, the true believers, don’t seem to notice or care if the real Santa takes a break from time to time and allows his doubles to occupy his velvet, wing back chair.

So for the sake of argument, let’s say it was Webber who graciously accepted a hug and kiss from a 2-year-old who had never before met Santa.

Why would he pretend to be the very personification of Christmas spirit?

Maybe he does it to raise money for a few worthwhile projects sponsored by Cabot City Beautiful, projects like the cleanups that get trash out of the city every year.

But at $3 for a picture with Santa, he isn’t exactly raking in the cash. Truth is, children get to visit with Santa even if their parents don’t want pictures taken of them with their own cameras.

So why would he do it, especially considering that no one has ever seen an elf in the middle of June painting or doing any other maintenance on the shack that serves as Santa’s Cabot apartment. That’s Webber’s job.

Though reluctant to admit too much, Webber offers this explanation: In the little Michigan town where he grew up, someone parked a shed on skids between the hardware store and the jewelry store in December and his parents would take him there every year to talk to Santa.

As an adult, he was called upon to dress as Santa for a Christmas party for a relative and he said he thinks he may have caught the Santa bug then.

However, it wasn’t until he moved to Cabot and got involved with Cabot City Beautiful that he remembered the shed in Sparta, Mich, and decided it might make a good fundraiser for the fledgling organization that had few other ways to raise money for projects.

Walmart had just opened, he said, and the new manager came to talk to Cabot City Beautiful. When Webber mentioned possibly opening a Santa Shack, she said it should sit in front of the store where it has been now for 15 years.

Raising money was only part of the reason for the shack, he said.

It also bothered him that taking a picture with a mall Santa can cost $40 or so, which is too much for some families to pay.

But the truth is that $3 is sometimes too much.

“If we think it would be better spent on food for the table or clothes on their back, we tell the helpers (usually students from the high school working toward credits for the National Honor Society) not to charge for the pictures,” Webber said.

Playing Santa for a family party may have got him hooked, but Webber said it was a child that motivated him to do more than ask the standard questions, “Have you been good? What do you want for Christmas?”

He was asking, he said, but the little boy on his lap wasn’t answering, so his mother explained that he was deaf and answered for him.

“That’s pretty crummy that Santa can’t ask a child what he wants just because he can’t hear,” Webber said.

So he and two others in the “Cabot Santa Brotherhood” enrolled in beginning sign language classes at the Arkansas School for the Deaf. Most of the students had deaf children, Webber said, and laughed at the reason he and his group were there.

But the instructor not only worked with them, she made them a video with the most common Santa questions for them to review each year before the shack opens to its young visitors.

“It took two years before I got to use it. But one day a little girl came and I asked her what she wanted and her mother started answering for her. I stood her in front of me and started signing,” he said.

“I don’t know who was more excited, me, the mom or the child. She started signing and she had the biggest grin on her face. That’s when it hit me why I’m doing this. It’s not about me. It’s not about Cabot City Beautiful. It’s about the kids,” he said.

Stephen Redd recalls how he came to know through a friend of a friend of Webber’s that there might be an open position at the Santa Shack, a position that he got through an interview and a thorough check of references.

Redd said it was hard to believe there wasn’t a long list of men wanting to don a red suit and listen to the wishes of small children – on Santa’s behalf. But the job was his, at least for a couple of two-hour shifts.

That was three years ago, and Redd now has his own suit and he buys a new beard every year because a season’s worth of tugging by small hands is hard on beards.

Working in the shack early in the season gets him in the Christmas spirit, he said.

“I don’t know if I could go a Christmas without it,” he said. “It’s just the look in the kiddos’ faces. It takes you back to how it used to be. You see the glimmer in their eyes and you know, you’re it.

“The heart breakers are the ones who come in and say, ‘Santa, I miss my mom. Santa, I miss my dad. I want a Christmas tree. I want my puppy to get well,’” he said.

There’s no way to prepare for those kinds of wishes, so Redd says he does the best he can and lets them know Santa cares.

“You don’t know what to say. You just have to be yourself,” he said.

This year, Redd said he got to talk to a boy who was on his team when he coached football.

He knew the boy had been in the hospital and he got to tell him he was looking good, Redd said. And since he knew the boy’s interests, they had something to talk about.

But when the boy told him he missed his old coach, Redd, a Santa stand-in, had to respond as Santa and assured the boy that his old coach missed him, too.

With his own children almost grown, Redd said he doesn’t coach anymore, so his shifts in his red suit provide his best opportunity to interact with children, and he doesn’t intend to give that up anytime soon. He’s even brought his wife Misty in as one of the helpers who take those $3 pictures.

“You know the difference between sports and Santa?” he asked. “All the parents are nice with Santa.”

Don’t believe it?

There are still a few more shifts scheduled at the Santa Shack. Go stand a while and watch. You might see little ones who aren’t quite ready to climb onto Santa’s lap. But there won’t be many parents who don’t appear disappointed when they don’t.

Could it be that the Santa Shack has enough Christmas magic to make them believe just a little? Enough magic to make them remember when they were like 2-year-old Maddox Shiell who instinctively knew that Santa deserved a hug and kiss for his kindness?