His visits are often heralded by the ringing of sleigh bells and plenty of hearty ho ho ho’s but there is a much quieter of side of Santa most people never get to see.
St. Nick visited the OSNS Child and Youth Development Centre this week to give some special kids a chance to whisper their Christmas wishes in his ear, something they would not otherwise be able to do in a busy mall or crowded department store.
This particular day, “quiet Santa” as he likes to call himself on these stopovers, along with No. 1 Elf Sharon, are spending some one-on-one time with children on the autistic spectrum.
“It just fills your heart to see the change in them,” said Santa between visits. “It’s just such a wonderful experience for everyone, including Santa. The biggest thing Santa can do is just sit there and be quiet. I might hum a Christmas carol or two. We have a small tree with some lights and when the child comes in the room I just wait for them to come to me. Some take a little longer than others but they usually do.
“It’s a sensory thing for them, they like to play with my beard and they become very animated and want to experience Santa. What’s important to the kids is important to Santa.”
Last year was his first visit to OSNS and for staff, parents, caregivers and the kids was according to the centre’s executive director Manisha Willms, “magical.”
For many of those attending again this year, like five-year-old Liam’s Filliol’s mom Amber Fradin, 2016 was the first time she saw her son sit on Santa’s lap and get a picture to boot.
“We had gone to the mall (to see Santa) before and because Liam is very sensory … when he gets in there with the noise he just started breaking down and crying. He didn’t like it and we had to get him out there,” recalled Fradin, whose son started at OSNS for three years ago. “That’s when we heard about quiet Santa. Liam was able to sit with Santa and just enjoy the presence of being there. My heart melted. It was very emotional. My child was happy, I was happy and we’re back again this year and he is really looking forward to it.”
Mom remembers her own childhood, sitting in Santa’s lap and looking up at the “happy, bubbly” face looking down at her and the warmth she felt then and wanted Liam to be able to have the same experience she did.
“I think that every kid should be able to believe in Santa and that’s what this has done for my son,” she said.
According to Willms, the experience for parents is just as important, if not more so, than for the children.
“We’ve had parents in tears of happiness, we’ve had staff in tears of happiness because at the end of the day we all want the kids to be happy and we want those memories, we want to see our kids with Santa and we also want the pictures for years down the road,” she said. “For a lot of these parents they’d given up the hope of having just those typical traditions that we all expect to have but they get to have them with quiet Santa.”
Tuesday was the second time four-and-a-half-year-old Ethan Fitton got to see quiet Santa at the centre and this visit was nothing like the first.
“He wouldn’t sit with Santa at all unless I was with him last year,” said his mother Erica after watching Ethan and Santa playing on the couch, which included plenty of laughter from both. “We had tried to take him to see Santa once before at the mall but by the time we waited in line he was crying.
“He is really sensitive to noise but it’s nice and quiet here and the time they give us is really important.”
After his day was done on Tuesday, Santa and his freckled Elf Sharon packed up the sleigh to head to their next stop and as they were leaving he could be heard wishing those nearby (very quietly): “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”