Prides Hollow Story Series by Award-Winning Storyteller Kelly Swanson

Courage Story 1: Santa's List

December 11, 2020 Kelly Swanson
Prides Hollow Story Series by Award-Winning Storyteller Kelly Swanson
Courage Story 1: Santa's List
Show Notes Transcript

Note: There is a stretch of music in the beginning of this podcast that seems to go on for a bit. This is because in the video there is a hand writing words that pop up on the screen with no audio translation.  The words spell out the Wikipedia definition of St Nicholaus.  So just sit tight and the words will start soon. Today Kelly interviews her friend, Santa Cliff, as they discuss the true meaning of the Christmas holiday through Cliff's eyes. Get your tissues out - this one has all the feels.  These Courage Stories are special videos posted in addition to the Prides Hollow Story Series.  The Prides Hollow series is about the stories of the people in that town. The Courage Stories are about YOU, Kelly's audience. Kelly collects your stories of ordinary people doing brave things. Because courage is contagious. 

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 Kelly: 

Kelly Swanson here. When I created the Prides Hollow story series, I knew it was going to be special because I love this town and the people who color it. As soon as I found out that old man Withers was going to leave them all money as a challenge to be brave, I knew it was something more than just the stories of what they do. More than just the beautiful messages of courage, but well, something bigger. 

Kelly: 

How did I know, because I know the power of story. I know the power story has to help me see my world in a different way. I know how hearing someone else's story inspires me and convinces me that I'm not alone and that I can jump to. This show is a community of people who encourage each other to be brave and then celebrate their acts of courage. So in addition to sharing my episodes of Prides Hollow and their stories, I will also be sharing yours. 

Kelly: 

This is my friend Cliff, or as he's known to most of us in our town, Santa Claus. If you've ever visited us around the holidays, chances are good he was ringing the bell on the sidewalk, outside the store on that rainy night that you rushed in to buy a last minute gift. Maybe you waved at him over your hot chocolate from your seat in front of the Christmas parade, or brushed past his picture on someone's refrigerator at a holiday party. To some of you he's really just a faint memory of when your child was a toddler and you propped him on Santa's knee at the mall, only to result in a fit of hysterics and a picture for the grandparents that, even despite it all, was worth the wait and the price. 

Kelly: 

You probably didn't see him all those times he showed up in the local high school, or bent down in the grocery store to take a few extra minutes to wink at a wide-eyed little boy who still believes. Or when he helped that lady out with her groceries and she found him charming, even though she knew he was really just a guy her age, wearing a red suit. 

Kelly: 

To most of the world he just blends into the scenery of a holiday flashing by as quickly as the presents that are unwrapped in a rush on Christmas morning, or just an odd symbol from a religion you don't really follow. To many of us he is a symbol all right, that adorned our childhood in brilliant color. The embodiment of what you did or did not get from holidays past. Someone we loved as a child, but later found out he was nothing more real than the Tooth Fairy or the Easter Bunny and was packed away with our favorite toys and belief in magic. 

Kelly: 

I think most of us as adults would come to the conclusion that Santa is not real, but I would beg to differ. He is real and he's my friend and today you're going to meet him. 

Kelly: 

I still remember the first time I met my friend Santa in person at a coffee shop about 16 years ago. We had actually met on social media, well, duh doesn't everybody, so this was the first time we decided to meet up in person for coffee. I brought my son with me. I think he was two or maybe even younger. He was at the age when I pushed him around in a stroller, which I parked beside me in the coffee shop 

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where he did not move the entire time. I had never seen my child so still for so long, literally frozen in place, forgetting even to chew on his little cracker. He was so spellbound looking up at this man, who even without his fancy red suit, was obviously Santa. He was toddler starstruck, completely under his spell, and so was I. 

Kelly: 

I have to admit when I first became friends with Santa, I thought it was a little strange, not that he became Santa once a year, but that he never really stopped the rest of the year. I remember saying to myself, wow, this guy takes his job seriously, and I was right, that he does take it seriously. I just didn't understand why. We chatted easily over coffee all those years ago. Now I'm not really a social person. I know, hard to believe. So meeting strangers wasn't usually on my list of favorite things to do, but it was so comfortable sitting with my new friend Santa, who began by saying, "Oh, please, Santa is so formal. You can call me Cliff." 

Kelly: 

We sat there as time melted away and I no longer noticed the people whispering and staring. We were just talking about life, this kind man who occasionally would turn and wink at passing stroller, wanting to know what it was like to be me. And when I said something funny, I'm not kidding, he had the real Santa laugh. 

Kelly: 

I have noticed in life when you meet strangers that most of these initial conversations are the same, slightly polite and guarded, asking the right questions for the social setting. And many of these chance encounters have the same feeling, at least for me. But sometimes in that rare occasion, the moment changes and unexpectedly becomes something, well, deeper. You get a glimpse into their soul, or they into yours, and there's this connection, not the romantic kind, though that certainly qualifies, but a simple human connection. 

Kelly: 

That's how it felt sitting across from my new friend. There was something that radiated from him. I felt it, my son felt it. I think even people passing by could feel it. I don't know what it was, an aura, a glow, a spirit of unrestrained kindness. There was a look in his eyes that made you feel safe, warm, important. Yes, that's it, important. And maybe it was a sugar and caffeine induced high, but suddenly I could feel that long forgotten magic I once felt, peeking over the railing at dawn on Christmas morning to see if Santa had come. I felt like I could crawl into his lap again and everything would be okay. He had a way of making you believe again, or maybe you never believed at all. You can say Santa is a myth, but this man in front of me was very real. 

Kelly: 

When I started my Prides Hollow story series about the people in Prides Hollow doing brave things, I decided I wanted to gather more than just their stories, and in between those episodes, share your stories too. The things you did when you were brave. So I put out a request for volunteers to share their story and to my surprise my friend Santa Cliff raised his hand. 

Kelly: 

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Immediately I knew he would be my first interview. The timing was perfect as the show aired in December and what better example of courage than a man who one day walked out of his job and into a red suit? I mean, it's the very thing bravery is made of. As we arranged time for the interview, I realized I didn't really know the story of the man behind the beard. The path that led him to the decision he made. The story behind the jolly laugh. You see, I had always focused on what he does as Santa. I had never really focused on why. I mean, too often, we fit Santa into our own story and what he does for us. Today, we'll step into his story and the true light behind his magic. 

Kelly: 

Now consider yourself very special because today we all get a sneak peek into the window of Santa's place. That's right. That's no green screen my friends, it's the real thing. Santa's man-cave. 

Kelly: 

A lot of people ask me what made me become a motivational speaker? Like it was a dream and a plan I've had for a long time, which it wasn't, I didn't even set out to become a storyteller. I mean, where I am now is a result of a list of unexpected accidents and doors that opened and I just walked through them. The biggest question I had for Cliff, as you probably do too, is, well, what makes a man decide he wants to be Santa? Often our purpose in life isn't really the result of a choice we intentionally make or a road we set out to pave, but actually an unexpected moment when you just say yes to an opportunity. That's what happened to my friend Cliff. 

Santa Cliff: 

... I was a sales executive sales manager for a company, and I got a call on a Friday and my secretary said, "Come back to the office. We need to see you. It's an emergency." And so I thought something had happened to somebody, so I rushed back and I was escorted into the conference room and I was dismissed with no notice. They said they were closing our whole division and that would be my last day. And so as a provider for my family, all of us, figure that day when we no longer have a job, this was on April 4, 2008. I came home. My wife was, of course, surprised to see me and I explained to her what had happened. And Kelly, I worried about it for a couple of weeks and I said to myself, I'm Santa Claus. That's something that I had already been doing for a number of years and I really embraced it. I felt like that's what my calling was. And I said, I'm going to pursue being Santa Claus full-time. 

Santa Cliff: 

And so I was old enough to sign up for early social security, which I did, and I began my new career and I have not looked back a moment. There's a scripture in Jeremiah that says, I know the plans that I have for you, a plan to prosper. And I haven't missed a bill and it's just been a wonderful journey since that happened. So that was a turning point for me. 

Santa Cliff: 

Not long after that happened, I got a Facebook message from a friend that a new photographer was opening up a studio in High Point. And so I went to see him for his grand opening, and I knew him, I had called on him as a customer, and he's professional photographer, Larry Hertzberger is his name. And I said, "Have you ever thought about doing a Santa photography?" And he said, "Let me show you the set that I'm working on." And he took me back in the studio and he showed me a Santa's workshop that he was already building. And he said, "Would you like to be my Santa?" And I said, "Would I? I can be here in eight minutes from my house." 

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And that started a relationship that's continued ever since. And because of Larry, some people say I'm the most photographed Santa in the world, because products have shown up in over probably 800 or 900 different things that he's created that have been sold in stores all over the country. And it's just been one miracle after another that I could not have created on my own. It's just that God placed different people in my path and it's just been a wonderful thing. I wouldn't change anything about it. 

Kelly: 

Wow. Have you ever had a moment like that where an unexpected door opens and you say yes, and thinking it'll be over and forgotten and then everything changes? If so, I would love to hear about it. Put it in the comments under this video or in the community thread on the YouTube channel. I think it's pretty cool that we're all probably one moment away from walking through a door that changes everything and we found our purpose, even under quarantine. 

Kelly: 

I think most of us would agree that our Christmas as a child was defined by our parents and how they wrapped up this holiday and presented it to us. The traditions passed down from generations. The favorite thing our grandma made, or the way my dad grumbled every year while untangling the lights. How my mother would secretly rearrange our carefully hung ornaments while we slept. The odd assortment of friends and relatives and mismatched gifts that you begged to open just one before Christmas, so of course, I wanted to know what Christmas meant to my friend, Santa Cliff. 

Santa Cliff: 

The dream started because my father loved Christmas more than anybody I've ever known. And every year he would take a picture of my brother and me and would print Christmas cards. He was a printer, had his own printing company, and to shorten the story, he and his brother went to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina to pick up his brothers two sons in 1962, who were getting out of the Marine Corps, and on the way home, all four of them were killed in a horrific automobile accident. And so the last thing that dad, this happened on Labor Day weekend, and the last thing that dad said to me before he left is Cliff, you're in charge now. You're the man of the house. You look after mom and your brother. And that's the last thing that we shared. 

Santa Cliff: 

So when Christmas came around that year and in Westland Memorial Church, where I belonged to the youth group, we were going to take some toys to a mission that we sponsored and they needed somebody to be Santa Claus. And somebody piped up and said, well, Cliff can do it. He's the fattest one in here. 

Santa Cliff: 

I didn't have the courage to refuse and so I put on a rented Santa Claus suit and that fake wig and beard and I went, Ho, Ho, Hoeing into the Beddington Street Mission in High Point, and had a Christmas tree over one shoulder and a bag of toys over another shoulder. And those kids didn't care that I was 15 year old teenager dressed up as Santa Claus. As far as they were concerned, Santa had come to see them. 

Santa Cliff: 

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So I made my way to a chair and I sat down and the children were clamoring all over me and everything and I was listening to what their wishes were for me. And it's like God tapped me on the shoulder and he said, Cliff, I know you've got a broken heart, but by bringing joy and happiness and excitement to other children, I'm going to heal your broken heart. And my journey started on that Christmas in 1962, and pretty much ever since I've worn a red suit at Christmas every year. So that's how it all started. 

Kelly:
 What's your favorite Christmas song? 

Santa Cliff: 

Away in a manger. That was my father's favorite Christmas carol and whenever he would sing it, a tear would run down his cheek and I kind of choke up about it when I sing it too, so that's my favorite Christmas song. 

Kelly: 

Sometimes people look at what I do and they make an assumption that it's glamorous. That I only work an hour at a time. That I go to all these fancy places. Well, for starters, thanks to COVID, the fanciest place I've been lately is my basement. And the most glamorous outfit I've worn is when some Christmas tinsel landed on my yoga pants. My point is that things always look different from inside the dream. I asked Cliff to talk about a not so glamorous side to being Santa. 

Santa Cliff: 

It's funny that you would ask this. The very first time that I professionally put on the suit, I was a bell ringer for Walmart on North Main Street, and I was standing out there and ringing bell and wishing everybody a Merry Christmas, and I fellow came up to me and he stood about 12 feet away and yelled at me. He said, you're not the meaning of Christmas, Jesus is the meaning of Christmas. And I totally agreed with him, but he wouldn't give me a chance to explain my point of view because I totally would have agreed, but he cowered into the store before I had a chance to talk about it and everything. And it hurt my feelings because I agreed with him and I wanted to agree with him and I wanted to embrace that and talk about it and share his belief. 

Santa Cliff: 

And I've run into that a few times. Not very many. People are usually going to be polite about it. And if they don't agree with my point of view, that's okay too. I mean, Santa loves everybody. It's interesting in this time that we're in now where these lives matter, those lives matter, those lives matter, to Santa, they're all the same. There's no rich and poor. There's no black and white or any other color. All of us are the same. That's the same way that God looks at us, is that we're all the same. He created each and every one of us. And I feel like Santa can bring some kind of peace to all of that, if that's possible, in this turbulent time that we're having is that Santa can be a mediator. 

Santa Cliff: 

I did a commercial the other day and I ended it with, I'm Santa Claus and I approve this message. I was inducted in the International Santa Claus Hall of Fame in 2013, and we each have a moniker by our plaque in Indiana and mine is keeping Christ in Christmas. I share a meeting with all of our fellow Santas at all of our conventions called keeping Christ in Christmas and I try to portray that that's why we do this 

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anyway. That it's about the birth of Christ. It's not about Santa, it's not about gifts. The greatest gift that 

was ever given to us was the birth of our savior. And so that's the story that I portray. 

Santa Cliff: 

And I even have a nativity belt buckle that I wear, and you'd be amazed at how the children will focus on it and start pointing to the different characters and everything. And it's a perfect segue way into explaining to them why we have Christmas. And so she supports that and she agrees with that. And I try to share that every opportunity I get without... I don't talk about it unless I feel like it's appropriate, but that's why I'm Santa. That's my calling. I truly believe this is what God wanted for me to do. 

Kelly: 

What's the most unusual thing a child has ever asked for for Christmas while sitting on your lap? Do you remember? Was there one that stuck out? 

Santa Cliff: 

Oh yes I remember. I was at the High Point Museum and I was talking to some children and a 12 year old boy came up, now usually a 12 year old is going to be kind of skeptical, but his parents were with him, his grandparents were with him and he came and he looked me straight in the eye and I said, "What would you like for Christmas son?" And he said, "I'd like a parachute for Christmas." And I said, "A parachute, my goodness. I have never had anybody ask me for a parachute. You know, come to think about it, if anybody ever needed a parachute, it would be Santa Claus. I mean, imagine if I hit some turbulence or the sleigh flips over and I fall out. I tell you what son, I'm going to ask the elves to make a parachute for me, make one for you. Now let me make sure that I understood what you said. You want a parachute for Christmas. Is that right?" 

Santa Cliff:
 "No, Santa. I said a pair of shoes." 

Santa Cliff: 

Well then I was embarrassed because I don't hear well as it is. And so, I completely made up a story about what he had asked for when it really wasn't what he was. But boy, do I ever remember that. 

Kelly: 

In my journey as a motivational speaker, I learned that if my job becomes all about how many people are in my audience or how many likes I get on Facebook or how much I get paid to speak, then the job is, well, it's always hollow. It's a pursuit of something that never really brings joy in the end. I learned that focusing on the many is not as powerful as focusing on the one person in front of me. I was surprised to learn how much Santa could relate to all of that. Now we think of Santa sitting there waiting for the next screaming toddler, smiling for the camera, wishing he could find more comfortable boots. We think of Santa stepping onto his stage and doing his thing. We don't think about the 10 year old who sneaks up when nobody's around and just has one request. The one thing that Santa doesn't have in his big red bag. 

Santa Cliff: 

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This is an enduring situation for me. I was at Chick-fil-A in High Point and there was a little boy, heavyset little boy there, I always visit with them because I love the company. I love what they stand for and their ethics and so we always have a Christmas with Santa party there. Anyway, there was a little boy standing off in the back that wouldn't come up to see me until the whole room had cleared. And so he came up and I offered him to sit on my lap and he felt like he was too big to do that. And so I got him right in front of me and I said, "Tell Santa what you would like for Christmas." He said, "Santa," he said, "all I want for Christmas is for the children to quit picking on me and calling me names and teasing me." 

Santa Cliff: 

Well, my heart broke because I knew exactly how he felt. I'd gone through the same thing when I was his age. But I also realized that I can't promise anything. I can't promise to give a child what they want for Christmas. But then I realized that I had a little book where I keep the names in my pocket and I reached in and I took the book out and I said, "Tell you what son," I said, "I'm going to write your name in this little book and I'm going to write down what you asked me." And I said, "I can't make the children quit picking on you but I know who can. And so when I get home, I'm going to say my prayers for you." And I asked him if that was okay and he kind of smiled. And he said, "Yes Santa. That's great. Thank you." 

Santa Cliff: 

When he turned around to walk away, it's like the Holy Spirit tapped me on the shoulder and said, now, Santa, that's a promise that you can keep. And so that night when I got home, when I was taking my outfit off, I sat down on the side of my bed and I took out that little book and I turned to the page with Jeffrey's name on it and I started talking to God about what he asked me for. And as sure as I'm talking to you, every angel in heaven heard that prayer. 

Santa Cliff: 

I still carry that book. It's got thousands of names in it because I know that's a promise that I can keep if I tell a child I'll say a prayer for them. And now, if they'll allow me, I'll say the prayer right there, because that's another thing, I feel like a prayer said in their presence is far more important than a promise to say a prayer. And so if they will allow me, I will say a prayer with them right then. And that Santa's prayer book is part of who I am now. 

Kelly: 

It was in this moment I really figured out what I felt in that coffee shop all those years ago when I had looked into the eyes of my new friend. It wasn't a man. It wasn't Santa. It was the spirit of something bigger. It was the hope of the world. It was the Holy Spirit that lived inside this man. The spirit that was using this man, his hands, his feet, his laugh, his eyes, his lap, and yes, his list, to whisper to a little boy. I see you. You matter. You are loved and you are not alone. 

Kelly: 

And that man in the red suit isn't doing this to get his picture on a magazine. He's not doing it so you'll throw another quarter in the donation kettle, though he wouldn't mind it. He's not doing it so he can have people wave at him on a float. He's doing it so he can be there for the next child, or maybe adult, who comes and whispers in his ear to get their name added to the list. He's doing this for one more chance to share the hope that is within him. 

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To those who say his existence minimizes the true meaning of Christmas, well, I would challenge and say that he is what this is supposed to be about, kindness unfiltered. The dogged pursuit of a hurting soul. The ear that will listen to a whispered story and give back much more than can be contained in a red velvet bag. And that is the spirit of Christmas. Sharing the hope that is in us and in the world. 

Kelly: 

We know that this year has been hard for many and that there are many who are hurting, who have heartaches and burdens that just feel too big to carry. Some of you today feel alone. You feel that there is no hope and all you see around you is darkness. I wish I had the answers, or the right words, but I don't. We can't pull out a magic gift to sell you from our big red bag, but we can put your name on Santa's list and it will be heard by the spirit in whose name it is written. 

Kelly: 

If you want your name on Santa's list and know that it will be whispered to the stars in prayer for you, please just write it in the thread below. No need to share your story if you don't want to, your name is enough. And if you do want to share your story or ask for some encouragement, take this chance to connect with another human who may not know your face, but cares anyway. 

Kelly: 

That's what Prides Hollow and these interviews are all about, these stories. It's linking arms together and whispering hope, finding courage and silver linings. And if anybody chooses to use this thread for negativity, don't worry. We'll just add them to Santa's naughty list and choose to focus on what is good. It is my honor to share Santa Cliff's story with you today. Thank you Cliff, for sharing your heart. And maybe next time when you pass the man in the beard, you'll take a closer look and hesitate the next time you're tempted to tell me that Santa is not real. 

Kelly:
 Merry Christmas. 

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