Suiting up as Santa healed a heavy-hearted grandfather from New Jersey

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Jim Cummings of Pennsauken, N.J. once worked as a Santa Claus at Paramus Park Mall and found a special connection with wishful, loving children. (Jennifer Lynn/WHYY)

Jim Cummings of Pennsauken, N.J. once worked as a Santa Claus at Paramus Park Mall and found a special connection with wishful, loving children. (Jennifer Lynn/WHYY)

The next time you see someone at the local mall who is dressed up as Santa in the red suit, with a beard, on the verge of a jolly ho-ho-ho, consider this: They may be providing a service that goes beyond listening to kids’ requests for gifts from the North Pole.

When there’s time, these seasonal workers can be helpful to children who feel unseen and misunderstood.

Morning Edition host Jennifer Lynn spoke with Jim Cummings of Pennsauken, New Jersey, who once donned a Santa suit at the Paramus Park shopping mall at an especially tender time in his life. He reflects fondly on those days, which he said were surprisingly less about presents and more about being present.

How long did you do dressing as Santa?

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Jim: It was about five weeks, six weeks. Right after Thanksgiving that I arrived on a fire engine in Paramus and then was ushered off the fire engine to these hundreds of kids, all yelling, “Santa, Santa!” They were embracing me and hanging onto my legs and everything until they took me into my kingdom in my chair.

A whole kingdom and a chair. And the outfit. You become what?  

Jim: There’s no preparation, per se. I mean, they give you like a printed guideline sort of deal. But that was about it.

So what can you do? What can’t you do?

Jim: Well, you know, for instance, don’t talk on your cell phone while you’re Santa. Or from the moment you have the suit on, you are in character. You must be Santa. It took me a good hour or so to kind of settle into the fact of what this was. And then I really started to enjoy it.

You only get a little printout of some things that you can and cannot do. What did you bring to it?

Jim: Well, I think what I brought to it was my empathy for children. I love children. I’ve always loved children. Things that make some people go crazy. You know, kids yelling and screaming, et cetera. I kind of find fun. I think what I brought to it was that genuine love that I have for children and my respect for them as well. I mean, I really think that they are important people in our world and I can’t imagine not having their contribution to our society in every respect.

Let’s not ignore a big personal story of hardship that made you think of putting on a Santa hat.  

Jim: Yeah, we had lost our grandson, and you don’t get over that. There’s just there’s no way to deal with the grief, it’s always with you. I was believing that I would never have small children in my life again. So therefore, I decided this would be one way to deal with that grief is to play Santa. It did help me deal with that grief. Absolutely. It was a wonderful healing experience in every respect. Since then, luckily enough, I have another unexpected granddaughter who’s now 10, and I help run a charity that builds playgrounds for kids with disabilities. So I’m now surrounded by children all the time, which is wonderful.

Now you use the word “believing,” and there’s a lot of belief and suspension of disbelief when one comes to a Santa — someone dressed as a Santa. What did you like to help the kids believe when they were with you? Either something they wanted or…

Jim: It’s interesting you say that because there were a lot of questions about that from other people. When you put the suit on, you become something else. And the suit is much more powerful than even the person in the suit. And because of that, you want children to believe that you are a kind person that is there to listen to them and who thinks what they have to say is extremely important. And that’s exactly what I came to it. I had nothing to do with gifts, by the way. I mean, that was a very small portion of the whole deal. It really had to do with the fact that they wanted to tell me certain things about themselves and they wanted to express their love for me and they wanted me to express my love for them.

On a sad level, they’d say to me, “My mommy and daddy don’t get along, but they still love me and they wanted me to talk to you about Christmas.” Somebody would say with her whole family behind me “I’m so lucky I’m not going to get much for Christmas. But that’s because we all get just a little bit and we’re very happy with it.” Nonetheless, she was happy being who she was and what she had. And it was really nice to see a child do that. I really liked being Santa. And because the mall was under construction, I had time. Many Santas don’t have time. They have to move the child on, get another child, because there’s 25 more in line. I would maybe have two in line, three in line.

Your mall was under construction?

Jim: The mall was in upstate New Jersey and it was under construction. And because of that, they didn’t have nearly as many people coming for the holidays as they would normally. And there were some times when I would only have one child.

And you got that time that you wanted.  

Jim: I did. I had an experience with a young man with special needs who came every day to tell me he loved me. He had had brain injury. He didn’t have many verbal skills. But he could say, “I love you,” and I would say, “I love you” back. And he would hug me and I’d hug him. And then he’d hold my hand and look at my eyes. And I realized he was three or four years old, maybe, even though he was 19. And his mother was so grateful. But I was grateful too. I had this interaction that I sense that he may not get as much as he might need. He was actually the last child I saw as Santa. He affected me in a very positive way and proved to me once again how much people with special needs have to give.

Thank you for sharing these very joyful memories.

Jim: They were joyful. They are joyful.

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