Santa on a Mission

by Mary Gammell

EDITOR’S NOTE: One of the most enduring traditions of the holiday season is that of children awaiting the arrival of Santa Claus, the magical elf dressed from head-to-toe in red, with a flowing white beard and twinkling eyes, a nose like a cherry and a miniature sleigh led by eight tiny reindeer. That is the image Americans have of the “jolly old elf” today. In fact, the Santa Claus we know today is based on a real person. A monk, who became St. Nicholas, was born around 240 A.D. in Patara, near the city of Myra, in what is today modern Turkey. Saint Nicholas was known for having given away all of his earthly possessions and spent his life taking care of the poor and downtrodden. 

The name Santa Claus was derived from the Dutch nickname for Saint Nicholas, Sinter Klaas. In 1809, Washington Irving helped to popularize the Sinter Klaas stories when he referred to St. Nicholas as the patron saint of New York in his book, The History of New York. By 1822, Dr. Clement Moore’s story-poem, “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” helped to increase the character’s popularity among children in America. In 1881, political cartoonist Thomas Nast drew on Moore’s poem to create the first likeness that matches our modern image of Santa Claus. His cartoon appeared in Harper’s Weekly, depicting Santa as a rotund, cheerful man with a full white beard, carrying a sack filled with toys for lucky children. It is Nast who gave Santa his bright red suit trimmed with white fur, North Pole workshop, elves and his wife, Mrs. Claus.

In September 2002, I received a phone call from Dr. David Nichols, “Mary, I need about $1,700 to treat children’s teeth for GIVE KIDS A SMILE DAY in February.” I replied, “David, what makes children smile the most from ear to ear? Santa Claus!”

I think he was a little dumbfounded with my answer until I explained that Robert E. Lee High School PTA had a Santa program in 1984 that I was privileged to chair. It was such a fun time for the Santa and the children. He thought for a moment, and then said, “Okay. Next question, who would be Santa” I did not think twice before answering, “My husband, Ron!” 

Ron would have loved to have played Santa Claus in 1984, but he was too skinny and young at the time—not the right look. But now, he would be perfect. We had a full plate … but what is one more thing to benefit children? Besides, there was a new direction for children’s dentistry beginning to take shape at St. Paul’s Children’s Services. The Mission Director at Marvin Methodist looked at our project and approved. The first year, 2002, was run through United Methodist Women. We made $1,900 or so. We advertised through the church, the children’s department, and a few businesses with whom we had contacts. We provided Santa for the Santa Brunch at Hollytree Country Club, and several other businesses. We set a fee that has not changed for individual family visits. For commercial visits, the fee is based on the number of people and the hours needed.

Having so much fun in 2004, it was decided to expand and take the idea in a new direction. It was officially named Santa on a Mission, administered through the Department of Missions, with Melissa Brigman serving as project Director. We knew St. Paul’s Children’s Services was the right fit for this ministry. We have never taken pay or gas money for this project. This is our gift to the community. We supply the “Ho, ho, hos” and many smiles. There were many needs for Santa Claus. The department for dentistry had taken shape at Bethesda and was a good model for the new dentistry program for children at St. Paul’s. We wanted to ensure all children could have a great smile.

“I am a recently retired dentist who has practiced dentistry here in Tyler for fifty years,” says Dr. David Nichols. “I am one of many area dentists who has volunteered to help provide low cost or free dental care to needy families in East Texas. The Bethesda Medical and dental Clinic for adults, and the St. Paul’s Eye and Dental Clinic are wonderful first-class clinics, which are the result of dozens of Tyler individuals who helped develop, volunteer, and provide support. The Gammells have been bringing awareness to the good work done at Saint Paul’s and helping raise money to support its daily activities. As Christmastime arrives again this year, we can look forward to seeing Santa Claus out and about. Wherever he appears, laughter and fun abound.”

Santa has secured books to read with children, and we try to engage each child to share (when applicable) that Christmas is about celebrating the birth of Jesus, our gift from God—the reason for the season—a time of love. After all, this is a Christian ministry. One of the most memorable visits was to All Saints Episcopal School many years ago, when a little boy was sitting on Santa’s lap. As Santa was visiting with him about the “reason for the season,” the little boy looked up and said politely, “l am Jewish and we celebrate Giving Day!”

Each year, word of mouth from members of Marvin (and happy customers) have allowed Santa on a Mission to grow. Dates scheduled for Santa’s appearance begin in summer, and the weekends are usually booked in November, beginning with Thanksgiving. After seeing Santa come home so excited after each visit, I decided I would be his helper and take pictures with new iPhone technology and air drop pictures to the hosts. This way, every attendee could be in the pictures and not a moment of the event would be lost. As many as sixty pictures have been air dropped at one time, creating new memories at each event.

Through the years we have done many events including a Rose Festival Party for children of the festival, Robert E. Lee High School Southern Bell breakfast, breakfast at an elementary school for 380 preschoolers at 6:00 a.m., and a Christmas in August for two friends that would be separated at Christmastime. We have done bank parties, accounting firm Christmas parties, and some drop-ins as a Christmas surprise. Santa once appeared in a choir presentation At Marvin Methodist.

Several years ago, after a visit to a nursing home, we realized there was a group of people who loved Santa Claus as much as the children do—Nursing Homes and Memory Care facilities. Presenting our mission to the Rogers Foundation and several special friends, we were blessed by their generous funding to visit these facilities for the last several years. During COVID, visits never stopped. One place had Santa on one side of the front door and each resident walked up and they patted hands through the door. At some, Santa walked around the outside and went up to each window to wave, personally. One resident was so fascinated that she walked indoors, room-to-room, and greeted Santa again and again, reliving her childhood joy of Santa coming.

Sometimes, there are a few risks in being Santa. A couple of years ago, Santa went to see a lovely family getting together for the first time in many years from all parts of the United States. It was a real generational visit with more than twenty family members. Walking across the lawn, Santa was not informed about an invisible fence for dogs (put up for the out-of-town pooches). Santa fell flat on all fours, but luckily his costume’s padding helped him avoid any serious injuries and no one was the wiser indoors. Santa loves dogs and most love him, in fact, some dogs want to squeeze out the children and get the attention, themselves.

There are always special things that happen during visits to remember long afterwards. One such thing happened, when after visiting children from one organization, Santa had a little boy ask for a front door for his house for Christmas. Following that visit, we followed up on the request and were able to get help for the family, plus provide Christmas for them. Over the years, many requests have come from children asking for help for the grandparent, or a family member—wanting to be sure they are not forgotten at Christmas—especially those with health concerns, indicating that even the smallest children think of giving, as well as receiving, at Christmastime.

According to St. Paul Children Services Executive Director Sharilyn McGhee, “Both Ron and Mary Gammell have been such a blessing to St. Paul Children’s Services! Their gift of love is two-fold, by spreading Christmas joy and the love of Christ to families and children in East Texas. The money donated from the Santa Claus visits allows our dental clinic to buy much needed equipment and provides dental exams for children without insurance. Such a great joy to see a child no longer in pain and smiling brightly! We are so grateful to the Gammells and their compassion for children that shows in everything they do!” 

Santa on a Mission continues in 2022. During these years that we have provided Santa Claus for various occasions, he has had two borrowed suits: one homemade suit and two fancy, store-bought suits—all complete with  beards. In 2021, our best year ever, thirty-five visits were made and countless pictures were taken of the children. In 2021, we drove 565 miles, airdropped hundreds of pictures, passed out twenty-four boxes of candy and gave hundreds of small gifts to children. We could not count the hours of fun with families and adults. We found laughter gets us through so many events, even Christmas Day itself!

Last year, $10,400 was raised for the clinics at St. Paul’s Children’s Services. After visiting with Melissa, we estimated we have raised about $90,000 with this ministry during the past nineteen years. It has helped to fund this wonderful clinic, which saw 12,109 children come through their doors in 2021. The need is still great. We have always wanted to bring smiles to children. One fact we have found to be absolutely true; children keep you young—at least in spirit! Incidentally, the youngest child Santa Claus held in 2021 was only ten days old. Who says Christmas is not special? Even for Santa!