THE PERFECT SANTA

Peterson’s Department Store was going to close in January, and there seemed to be nothing Whitney could do to stop it. In just a couple of months, thirty-five employees were going to lose their jobs, some of whom had worked there for decades. And each one had families that were depending on them to bring home a paycheck.

But here in the Upper Midwest, times were hard. And it was particularly rough for a small family business to try and compete with the giant national chains. But that was the challenge that Whitney Peterson faced this Christmas season. She had taken the helm four years earlier, but by then, it was already a losing battle.

Sitting behind her ancient cluttered desk, she felt completely alone and without hope. It broke her heart to think about closing the doors on a business that her grandfather had started and that had been a fixture in the town for sixty-five years. But the world had changed. The large retailers could buy their inventory at bulk discount rates that were not available to her, and every day, people were spending more and more online. In many cases, brick and mortar businesses were dying and along with them a way of life.

Of course, she understood that everyone wanted to buy at the best possible price, but she couldn’t help but wonder if communities really understood what they were losing when small businesses closed one after the other, putting their friends and neighbors out of work.

And certainly, no one could deny that the convenience of the internet made shopping ridiculously easy. That was why one of the first things Whitney did when she took over was to try to increase their online sales, but they were late to the party and had never found a way to stand out and be noticed.

But, along with her other problems, she also had to admit that she was her own worst enemy. Whitney’s heart was too big to lay-off any of her employees, and that was contributing to her downfall. Even though the banks kept telling her to cut her payroll, she just couldn’t do it. She actually cared about her people and their lives, and that made her fiercely loyal employees love her in return.

No matter what happened, she believed they were all in this together, and she refused to sacrifice some of them in order to save herself.

Whitney pushed her auburn hair out the way and rubbed her forehead. She had spent several hours interviewing candidates to play their instore Santa and her head was pounding. It seemed pointless to even try this Christmas. Her business would have to generate unimaginable streams of revenue this holiday season to stay open and so she was not in the mood to waste time with the whole Santa charade.

Although she tried to fight it, she couldn’t help being bitter. If people would rather shop at the mall, fine. Go visit their north pole extravaganza, and get your child’s picture taken there.

She pulled open a desk drawer and was rummaging around for a bottle of aspirin when there was a knock on her door. Phyllis, her longtime secretary peeked in.

“There is one more applicant here to see you for the Santa position.”

Whitney slumped in defeat. Not a single person she’d interviewed had been worth hiring, and now just the thought of talking to another person made her head throb even more. With an obvious lack of enthusiasm, she said, “Okay. Send him in.”

Phyllis disappeared for a second, then stepped back into the office and held the door open as the next candidate entered the room. When Whitney saw him, it took every bit of willpower she had to not let her surprise show. The man, who was dressed in a business suit, had flowing white hair and a beautiful long white beard. He was about the right age and, although it was difficult to tell for sure, he appeared to be the right size and shape. Overall, his physical resemblance to Santa was striking – except for one thing. The man was using a wheelchair. 

Phyllis handed Whitney his application and did the introduction. “Miss Peterson, this is Mr. Renshaw.” She smiled at both of them and closed the door as she left.

Mr. Renshaw extended his hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Peterson.”

Still trying to conceal her surprise, Whitney stood up and shook hands. “Thank you for coming in, Mr. Renshaw.”

Smiling warmly he said, “Please, call me Douglas.”

“All right.”

She sat back down as he took a moment to look around. Knowing this building was almost seventy years old, he was not surprised to see that the age was reflected in the surroundings. Other than a laptop, which was barely visible under piles of papers and folders, this office probably wasn’t much different than it was decades ago.

Douglas looked at the besieged woman behind her desk. It was easy for him to read her mind. “You are surprised, aren’t you?”

“No, no……Well, yes. I guess so.”

“I bet I’m the only candidate for this position who did not walk in.”

“That’s true.”

Douglas chuckled. “Just a lucky guess on my part.”

After a brief pause, Whitney posed the question she felt needed to be answered if this interview was going to go any further. “I hope you don’t mind me asking, but were you recently injured? Is the use of the wheelchair just temporary?”

“No, I don’t mind you asking. And yes, I was injured – but not recently.” Douglas smiled. “It occurred sixty-four years ago during my birth so it’s beginning to look more permanent all the time.”

Whitney tried to show no reaction, but it was impossible. With all the problems and issues she was facing she didn’t need this kind of aggravation. As delicately as possible, she said, “You certainly look the part of Santa. In fact, the resemblance is unbelievable, however, I’m not sure……”

Showing no signs of offense, Douglas said, “There is an extensive list of references attached to my application. I think you’ll soon find out that I am an excellent candidate for this position.”

Obviously, the man was not going to make this easy. Whitney sat down behind her desk and thought for a second. If she claimed he was not qualified because of his disability, the store could be in legal jeopardy, and they didn’t need a lawsuit hanging over their heads along with all their other troubles. On the other hand, there was always the unpleasant option of being less than honest. She could mislead him into thinking that a decision had been reached to hire someone else – but she was not that kind of person.

Reaching up to rub her temple, she wished the bottle of aspirin had turned up.

Douglas studied the woman in front of him. He had a knack for reading people. He knew she was trying to get over the surprise of meeting him, and he correctly assumed she was trying to figure out a graceful way of ending the interview before it even began. It was not his intent to make her uncomfortable, on the contrary, he wanted to come to her assistance.

In a disarmingly pleasant tone of voice, he said, “Miss Peterson, I realize you were shocked that I did not walk into your office, but I assure you that your reaction is not unusual. I’ve encountered it many times in my life. But please try to keep an open mind because I believe I can be the Santa you want and that your store needs.”

Whitney had to admit that this man radiated a certain warmth that made her feel comfortable. “I’m just afraid the physical demands of the job might be too much.”

That made Douglas smile again. “The main physical requirement of being Santa is sitting with a small child on your lap. I have a lap, and I am an expert at sitting.”

Whitney was starting to wonder if this day was ever going to end. “Look, I’ve got to be honest. I’m not sure the public would accept a Santa in a wheelchair.”

Very gently he asked, “The public – or you?”

Trying not to let her irritation show, Whitney said, “I’m just saying some parents might object.”

“And what if they do?”

He looked intently at an exhausted woman in her mid-forties who appeared to have the weight of the world on her shoulders. “I’ve heard reports that your company is in grave financial distress.”

Although she had tried to keep a lid on their debt problems she knew that it was now common knowledge. “Unfortunately, that is correct.”

In a thoughtful tone of voice, he said, “If you are going to close anyway, why not make it a Christmas that no one will forget? What do you have to lose?”

Whitney was trying to have patience, but this stranger had no idea of what was really happening. “I have everything to lose. I have employees that are counting on me. If we don’t have record-breaking sales this holiday season, we will have to close after the first of the year. I have got to make the best possible decisions I can, and I’m sorry, but I’m not sure that hiring you would be the best decision.”

Douglas ran his fingers through his long thick silver hair and said, “I have spent my life studying people. The good ones and the bad ones. And I believe you are a good person in a bad situation. And I think you are a smart person who finds herself playing in a game that is rigged against her.

“In your heart, you know that if you follow traditional thinking, your business is going to fail. From what I understand, it is mathematically inevitable. So to have any hope of saving it, you know you need to think in different ways. And one of those ways is hiring a person who does not fit the stereotype of a beloved cultural figure. What I’m saying is, if you want to save your business you have to take a chance. And I am that chance.”

Whitney did not like the way this man seemed to be able to read her mind. “You don’t know what I am thinking.”

“Actually, I know what you are thinking right now.”

“Stop it!” Whitney was worn down and worn out. “I’m going to have my secretary call every one of your references, and if there is even a single issue, I will not consider you for the job.”

Douglas just smiled.

“Unfortunately, along with the position you are applying for, I still have to hire two Santa helpers. One male and one female.”

“Already taken care of!” Douglas said brightly.

After a long day, Whitney was reaching the end of her patience. “What are you talking about?”

“I have the people I will use as Santa’s helpers. All you have to do is pay them. One less thing for you to worry about.”

“That is not how it works! I haven’t even hired you yet. You are not going to tell me who will work in my store.”

“I don’t want to tell you – I want to show you. Would you like to meet them? They’re downstairs waiting with my brother, Cliff.”

“What?!!”

“And by the way, I have three helpers, not two. That is very important.” Douglas reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone.

“Wait a minute! Stop!” Whitney watched in disbelief as he made the call and asked that the three individuals be sent to her office.

“I can’t believe you just did that.” Whitney was momentarily stunned. “Call him back right now! I’m not going to hire someone just because they’re your friends.”

With a twinkle in his eye, Douglas said, “Soon they will be your friends as well.”

“Oh, God.” Whitney started opening drawers again in a desperate search for the elusive aspirin.

But then Douglas recaptured her attention as his tone turned serious. “Miss Peterson, have you ever reached a moment when you realized you were about to make a decision that was so important that it could change the rest of your life – for better or worse?”

Whitney slowly closed the drawer and looked at this unusual man. There was just something about him that compelled her to listen carefully.

“As you said earlier, you have the futures of many people in your hands. They have placed their trust in you, and now I am asking you to trust me. And that trust begins with meeting the three individuals that I need as Santa’s helpers. I think the four of us, working together can provide your store with everything you need to ensure its survival. But you must understand that it’s a package deal. You will need to hire all four of us or I can’t take the job.”

Whitney was incredulous. “I haven’t offered you the job!”

Douglas engaged in more mind reading. “I think we both know you want to hire me, but it is imperative that you hire my three friends as well.”

Just as Whitney began to protest again, Phyllis knocked on the door. The secretary opened it wide and with a bemused look on her face announced, “Miss Peterson, you have more visitors.”

Douglas turned and smiled warmly as the three potential candidates walked in.

Out of reflex, Whitney audibly groaned. She could only hope that not everyone heard her.

Not everyone had.

Phyllis started to leave, but Whitney got her attention and handed her Douglas’s application. “Please call every reference on this list. Immediately.”

Her secretary looked at Douglas who winked at her. “I’m sorry, but at Mr. Renshaw’s insistence, I have already called them.”

Whitney stared at her secretary in disbelief.

“And you will be happy to know that Mr. Renshaw’s references are impeccable. Each person gave their highest recommendation regarding his qualifications for this job.”

Douglas wiggled his bushy white eyebrows at Whitney, but she was still skeptical. “I’m sure they did.”

Although she felt like she was at her wit’s end, the owner of the sixty-five-year-old department store stood up and looked with wonder at the individuals who had entered her office and were about to enter her life.

One was a young man in his late teens who was quite small in stature with no hair. He was extremely thin and frail and appeared to be seriously ill. He was tightly gripping a walker, and Whitney thought it was unlikely he could stand without it.

In the middle, stood a petite African American woman who Whitney guessed was probably about thirty. Her tiny frame, coupled with the fact that she was wearing braces on both legs suggested that it would be difficult for her to perform her duties.

The man on the other side had Down syndrome and was about the same height. Whitney smiled at him and a look of embarrassment swept over his face as he turned away. She wondered how he could possibly interact with dozens of people at once.

As she looked at the three of them she doubted any of them were 5 feet tall.

Douglas said to his friends, “This is Miss Peterson, she is the person you will be working for.”

As politely as she could, Whitney said, “Well, we will see about that.”

Douglas placed his hand behind the back of his wheelchair and discreetly gave them a thumb’s up. Then he introduced them.

Turning to the young man who appeared to be so sick, he said, “This is my friend Santiago Aguilar. Although he has been undergoing chemotherapy, he wants to work. He speaks perfect Spanish and can interpret for me when we have a child who does not speak English.”

Santiago smiled and in a weak voice said, “It is nice to meet you, Miss Peterson.”

“Thank you,” Whitney said. “I appreciate you coming in.”

The future Santa turned to the young woman. “This is my friend Brianna Sherman. She happens to be deaf so she communicates with sign language. She will also act as an interpreter for me.”

Whitney nodded at the woman and smiled.  

Douglas said, “You can speak to Brianna. She reads lips.”

“Oh, okay.” Trying not to feel self-conscious, Whitney said, “It’s good to meet you, Brianna.”

With labored but understandable enunciation, Brianna said, “It’s my pleasure.”

Douglas then turned to the other young man. “This is my friend Jeremiah Bates. He has Down syndrome, and he also happens to be nonverbal. But that will not interfere with his ability to communicate in a way that people will understand.”

Again, Whitney smiled at him and said, “Hello, Jeremiah. I’m glad you came by.”

Jeremiah’s face blushed with color as he looked down at the floor.

Still standing, Whitney took a long look at the four people in front of her. An hour ago it all seemed so simple. She just wanted to hire a run-of-the-mill department store Santa like Peterson’s had done for the last six decades. And now she faced all of this.

Reading her mind, as he seemed to be able to do, Douglas turned to his three friends. “Thank you for coming up and meeting our new boss. Please go ahead and head back downstairs. I’ll join you in just a little while. I’m guessing that Miss Peterson would like to have a few words with me.”

Lowering her voice, Whitney said, “You bet I would.”

Goodbyes were exchanged and the three potential helpers carefully headed out the door, but at the last second, Jeremiah turned, walked over to Whitney and gently hugged her. A second later they were gone.

Douglas watched as a tear trickled down Whitney’s face and at that moment he knew this was a person who desperately wanted to make the right decision – for everyone.

Whitney wiped her face and glanced at Douglas who sat smiling. Without saying a word she unceremoniously collapsed in her chair.

He stroked his long beard and said, “Quite an afternoon, wouldn’t you say?”

After taking a couple of seconds to compose herself, Whitney leaned forward and looked Douglas in the eye. “Who are you and what is going on?”

“Yes, I suppose you do deserve an explanation.” He paused for just a moment and then said, “I am someone who wants to repay a debt. However, it is a debt so great that it would be impossible to ever truly repay.”

Whitney rubbed her forehead and wearily said, “Please don’t talk in circles. Just tell me.”

“I wish I had some aspirin to give you.”

She nodded in response.

Douglas took a moment to adjust his glasses, and then he began. “I mentioned my paralysis occurred during my delivery, but what I didn’t tell you is that my mother did not survive my birth. At the age of twenty-six, my father became a widower with what was, in those days, referred to as a ‘crippled’ child.”

At that moment, Whitney stopped thinking about her headache and began to pay close attention.

He looked at her with genuine compassion. “Is it all right if I ask you a personal question?”

Although she hated to admit it, Whitney wanted to hear him out. “If it will move things along, fine. Ask away.”

Douglas did not hesitate. “Did you know your grandfather was once an alcoholic?”

The blood quickly drained from her face. This was too much. This man, a complete stranger, had come into her world and disrupted what little order was left in it, and now he was insulting her family. She’d had enough. “This conversation is over. Please leave now!”

Disregarding her request, Douglas said, “Judging from your reaction, I’m guessing you had at least some knowledge of his past.”

Whitney could no longer control the anger that was swelling inside her. “My grandfather was a wonderful man! He started this business with nothing and built it into something that benefitted the entire community – not that anyone cares about that now.”

“I care.”

Whitney’s anger softened slightly. “How did you know my grandfather had a drinking problem?”

“Because he saved my Dad’s life, which, of course, had a profound effect on my life.”

“What do you mean?”

“Your grandfather served in Korea as a combat medic.”

“That’s right.”

“The war changed him, and when he got back home he began to drink in an attempt to forget the horror he witnessed. After struggling for several years, he joined Alcoholics Anonymous and the drinking stopped. He regained control of his life and decided that whenever possible he would try to help others. He opened this store, and about a year later, against the advice of his associates, he hired my dad.

“Your grandfather knew about me and my mom, and he knew that my dad, in his grief, had been having difficulty holding down a job, but he didn’t know everything. So because he needed more help during the Christmas rush, he took a chance and hired him. I don’t know if you still have personnel records from that far back, but his name was Lewis Renshaw.

“At first my dad tried to live up to the faith your grandfather had shown in him, but eventually the drinking overwhelmed him, and his life spiraled out of control. Your grandfather began to suspect that dad was struggling with alcoholism, and then one day my father was caught stealing money from one of the store’s cash registers. He was ashamed because he was going to go to prison, but more than that, he was heartbroken because he was going to lose his son.

“But then the most amazing thing happened. It was a beautiful act of compassion that can never be repaid. Because it was Christmas, your grandfather chose to forgive my dad.”

Whitney wasn’t sure she understood. “Please explain.”

“Instead of pressing charges, he gave my father one more chance. He got him into AA and sponsored him. That turned my dad’s life around, and he never took another drink. Eventually, he got remarried to a wonderful woman, and I ended up with an amazing brother. It was your grandfather who gave me the chance to have a family.”

Whitney was stunned.

“That is why when I heard the news that your family department store was going to close, I knew I had to do something to try and help.”

Whitney nodded. “I will admit that sounds exactly like something my grandfather would do. He was a saint.”

With great sensitivity, Douglas said, “So are you, Miss Peterson. You just don’t know it yet.”

Whitney struggled to keep her composure. “Some saint. I’m about to destroy my grandfather’s life’s work.”

“You don’t know that for sure. Maybe this Christmas will surprise you.”

Whitney shrugged off his upbeat attitude. “What about your helpers? What is their story?”

“Because of my experience of living with a disability, I have spent my life working with children and adults who have a wide array of challenges, who are medically fragile, and who are facing life-threatening illnesses.

“But I want to assure you that the three people that came in today are not going to be used as props or window dressing. They are real human beings who are doing the best they can in life, just like you and me. They don’t need your pity or your sympathy – they need a job. I chose to bring these particular individuals because they are each uniquely qualified to perform the tasks that will need to be done.”

Whitney shook her head. “Money, money, money! I only have the budget for two.”

He smiled. “I understand. Just take the third salary out of my pay. I don’t need it.”

Frustrated, Whitney asked, “How long have you known these people?”

“It doesn’t matter. You know people just like them too.”

“No, I don’t think I do.”

“What I mean is, you see people every day who deserve a chance. You see people who have particular challenges that you don’t face. They are everywhere. You only have to look up from your own problems long enough to see them. We all deserve compassion and kindness. That is what your grandfather had for my dad, and it’s what you have for your employees and their families. It is your love for them that is causing your anguish.”

“You say these people are everywhere, but they haven’t been to our store.”

“That’s because you haven’t had anything to offer them.”

Whitney said, “I realize I don’t know all that much about disabilities, but I don’t think we have any deaf children who come to see Santa.”

“You can tell just by looking?”

His response made her snort out loud. “Well, yeah, I see your point……Now, I will admit that we do have a lot of customers who speak Spanish. But I think you could get by with just those two.”

“So – what you are really saying is that you don’t see the need for Jeremiah to be part of this because he is nonverbal.”

“Please stop telling me what I think. It just so happens that you are right, and it is annoying.”

Douglas smiled. “Jeremiah is perhaps the most import person of all. He should be here because he deserves to be included. I’m sure you want your business to be inclusive in every way.”

She sighed. “Of course.”

“Jeremiah has a way of connecting with people that is real and sincere. They seem to be able to sense that and they react in wonderful ways, and they love it when he hugs them. You should’ve seen your face when he hugged you. His genuine kindness is a lovely gift that he is willing to share with those who need it, and what better time of year to do that than at Christmas?”

Whitney was still having doubts. “I’m just not sure about all of this.”

“Don’t you believe people can communicate without saying a word? Don’t you think a big smile, a pat on the shoulder, a touch on the hand, or a warm hug can convey a person’s feelings?”

“It is going to be impossible to win an argument with you if you keep making perfect sense.”

Douglas winked. “Then why don’t we stop arguing?”

“I don’t know why I’m bothering to ask, but, do any of these three people have job experience?”

“Not one bit!”

“Of course not.”

They sat quietly for a few moments while Whitney considered the pros and cons of hiring the three helpers. Although she believed they had the right to work, she was not sure if the hectic fast-paced Christmas season was suited to them. Most of all she was concerned about Santiago.

As her throat tighten with emotion Whitney asked, “How sick is – ?”

“I’m sorry, but I must protect each person’s medical information. However, I will say that when I explained to each of them that I was coming here in the hopes of finding employment for them, it was Santiago who was the most worried. He was afraid that when you found out he had cancer you wouldn’t give him the opportunity. I must tell you that his stamina is not good, and his treatments often make him quite ill.”

Whitney bit her lip and then said, “He looks so fragile. It is troubling.”

“Santiago is eighteen years old, and one of five children. Unfortunately, his parents were struggling to provide for them even before their son was diagnosed and the astronomical medical bills began to pile up. In fact, their situation is similar to yours. You face losing your business, and they face losing their home.

“However, they are committed to making sure their son receives the best possible care so that he has a fighting chance. And it is because of those medical bills that he is so excited to work for you. He wants to contribute and help pay for his treatments. But, of course, only you can allow that to happen.”

Whitney put her hand over her mouth and looked away in a futile attempt to keep Douglas from seeing her tears. She had no way of knowing that was the exact reaction he was hoping she would have.

Whitney turned around and looked at Douglas with weary resignation. “Just what is it you want from me?”

“I want you to let me try to help you save this business and in the process, you will be providing employment for our three friends. I know you are facing a serious financial crisis, but these three individuals are facing challenges of their own. It would mean the world to them to get to work in your store at Christmas.”

He smiled sweetly. “I promise that if there are any problems with my helpers, I will deal with it. But I think you are in for a surprise.”

“I don’t think I can take any more surprises.” She took a long deep breath in the faint hope that it would give her momentary relief from the headache that had been raging for the past hour, but it didn’t help. Nervously tapping her fingers on her desk, she tried to think of every possible reason for why she should not hire this man. But no matter what, she kept coming back to the fact that there was just something appealing about him. She could not help but be impressed that he wanted to do something considerate and thoughtful.

Slowly she said, “If – and I mean if I hire you for this job……and if I hire your helpers –”

“All three of them.” He added cheerfully.

Whitney once again started to massage her temples. “Yes……okay……all three of them – why do you think that is going to help this store stay open?”

“I can’t guarantee that it will. But I can guarantee that you will have acted in the Christmas spirit, and no matter what happens, you and your employees will feel better about yourselves for having made the effort in a beautiful way. But I think you will be surprised.”

“Stop saying that!” She took a breath and said, “I’m sorry, but your happy upbeat attitude is irritating.”

“I’m filled with Christmas joy. Don’t you want your Santa to be jolly?”

“Yes, yes, yes.”

“You do like Christmas, don’t you?”

“Of course I like Christmas! But this year it represents the end of something I love. And it is breaking my heart.”

He paused for a moment and then said, “I understand. That is why I want you to take a leap of faith and place your hopes in the hands of four complete strangers. Four people who have faced far bigger challenges than losing a business.”

Whitney leaned back in her chair as her thoughts sorted themselves out. Yes, she was probably going to lose her family’s store but another family was facing the possibility of losing their child. Not having any children herself, you could only imagine how terrified they were. As she considered their lives in comparison to hers, her perspective began to shift.

“Miss Peterson, I need all three helpers because I don’t want any child to feel left out. I want all of them to be able to communicate to Santa what is in their heart – each in their own way. I hope you can understand that.”

“Do you honestly believe you can do the job? If I hire a Santa that does not walk, there will be unbelievable scrutiny on you and on our store.”

“I’m counting on it. And you should too.”

“But what if you struggle or simply aren’t up to it?”

“I assure you, I would not have applied if I wasn’t certain I could do the job.” Then he happily added, “And if it helps you make your decision, I look very festive in red!”

Whitney rubbed her forehead. “Oh my God. I can’t believe this.”

Helpfully Douglas said, “You definitely should try to find some aspirin.”

Whitney fixed him with a hard look. “When could you start?”

“Anytime. I am currently between jobs.”

Whitney could only imagine what that meant. “I cannot stress how important Christmas is to a small retailer like us. We depend on the whole ‘Santa experience’ to bring families to the store to shop, and we make money off of the photos we take.”

“No, no. We can’t charge for photos.”

“What are you talking about? The money from the photos barely covers the cost of the treats we hand out to the children. We have to charge for photos.”

“No, you don’t.”

Whitney hung her head. “It is not that difficult to understand. We are in business trying, without much success, to make money. In our particular financial situation, every penny counts. It does not matter who is playing Santa, we are charging for the photos.”

“Charging for photos defeats the entire purpose of doing this.”

Whitney clenched and unclenched her fist. “And just what is the purpose of all this?!”

A look came over Douglas’ face that touched her. “The purpose is to include every child. To create a moment they will never forget. Their parents will want to remember this Christmas for the rest of their lives. This will include families who are barely scraping by, who may not be able to afford the simplest gift for their child. But we can give them a memory that they can hold onto forever. And that memory cannot have a price attached to it. You can take all of the pictures you want, but you can’t deprive a family just because they are experiencing the same economic pressure that you are.”

“That is not a fair comparison!”

“Yes it is – and you know it. The way you feel as you struggle to save the jobs of those you care about is not unlike the way parents feels when they cannot provide a Christmas for their children.”

Whitney stood up and began to pace back and forth behind her desk.

Douglas watched with amusement as she worked it through in her mind.

After much agonizing and soul-searching, she stopped pacing and sat down. Silence hung in the air until she finally said, “I can’t believe I’m going to do this.”

Douglas cocked his head and waited for it.

Whitney cleared her throat and said, “Mr. Renshaw, please assure Santiago that if he needs to take frequent breaks or needs to miss work it is not a problem. He can rejoin us as soon he feels up to it……Against my better judgment, you and your three helpers are hired.”

Douglas studied her face. It was the face of a person who was not only willing to take a chance in the hope of saving something that meant everything to her, it was also the face of a person who wanted to help others even as her own life was being turned upside down.

“Thank you, Miss Peterson. There was never a doubt in my mind that you would arrive at this decision. This is definitely not a surprise.”

Douglas extended his hand and as Whitney stood up to shake it, she bumped a stack of papers on the corner of her desk dislodging an open bottle of aspirin which fell to the floor, scattering pills in every direction. 

 

***

 

Over the next couple of days, the store finished all the Christmas preparations, including a north pole setting complete with an ornate chair for Santa designed to the appropriate height so Douglas could transfer from his wheelchair. However, just like every other year, that area was kept out of public view until the day of the big reveal when Santa would make his initial entrance.

It was a moment that had Whitney worried sick.

With only forty-eight hours to go before his first appearance, she wanted to discuss the situation with Douglas. She found him along with Santiago, Brianna, and Jeremiah wrapping the treats that would be given to each child after their visit.

Whitney took him aside to discuss what she considered to be a delicate subject.

“Douglas, I would like your thoughts on how we should publicize the fact that this holiday season our store is featuring individuals with disabilities. I assume you have some thoughts on the subject. You always do.”

As cheerful as ever, Douglas replied, “Yes, I have an opinion.”

“And I bet you’re willing to share it.”

“Of course!”

“Okay, do you want to take photos of the four of you so we can put them online? Or would you rather shoot a short video?”

“Neither one.”

“What? We have to let people know.”

“Why?”

“We can’t just surprise them.”

“Why not?”

“If they don’t know ahead of time, your appearance might confuse the kids.”

Douglas smiled. “Children are naturally curious. Hopefully, they will ask questions.”

“That is what I’m afraid of.”

“No, that would be great!”

Whitney didn’t understand. “How would you answer them?”

“As honestly as possible.”

His answer did not satisfy her. For a few seconds, Whitney walked in circles mumbling to herself. Then she had an idea. “I know! When I put out our usual written press release about Santa, I’ll just add a brief description to let people know that we have chosen to hire individuals with disabilities.”

Douglas shook his head. “There is no need to do that.”

“But if I don’t, people are going to want to know why we are doing this.”

“Why do you have to explain? There are millions of people who have physical or intellectual challenges. They all celebrate Christmas. I don’t believe there are any rules that govern whether Santa has to be able to walk.”

“I know, I know.”

Douglas was not reluctant to share his opinion. “Miss Peterson, putting on a bright red suit and being able to stroll through a department store is not what makes a person Santa.”

Whitney realized she was about to lose yet another argument – but she was getting used to it.

“In reality, anyone at any moment can be Santa for a child.”

She couldn’t help but smile because in her heart she knew that was true.

A look of tenderness slowly came over him. “For a person to be Santa, they have to care. They have to listen. They have to be empathetic. They have to make each child feel like their hopes and wishes are the most important thing in the world. And if they do that with patience and kindness, the fact that they cannot stand-up will make absolutely no difference what-so-ever to that child.

“Even with everything that is at stake this holiday season, we can’t lose sight of the essential truth that Christmas is really about those children. And we must include children who do not see, speak or hear. And children who cannot walk or control their muscles. And even children who may not be able to fully comprehend Christmas or understand it all.

“We have a responsibility to welcome everyone, and if we do that, I hate to say it but you will be surprised.

“So please, just announce that Santa and his helpers will be at your store at the appropriate time. You do not need to explain, defend or promote our disabilities. We are just the people you have hired for this particular holiday season.”

In resignation, Whitney gave up. This man was impossible to reason with, and she realized it was because he knew far more than she did about certain areas of life.

 

***

 

The next forty-eight hours raced by with breathtaking speed, and although Whitney did not feel ready, the time had come for Santa’s arrival.

Considering the competition from the chain stores and malls, a sizeable crowd of families waited with eager anticipation for Peterson’s Santa to make his appearance.

The actual stage area where Douglas would be sitting was still hidden behind a red and green curtain, just as it was every year.

Whitney stood off to the side with her secretary. Looking out at the long line, she said, “Oh God, Phyllis, I hope I’ve made the right decision.”

Her secretary believed with all her heart that she had. She knew the pressure and stress her boss had been under in recent months as the store faced their creditors. Phyllis reached over and took hold of Whitney’s hand. “I’m proud of you for doing this, and I am so proud to be a part of this company. Everything about this feels right.”

Suddenly from behind them, Christmas music began to play and the distinct sound of bells being rung drew closer and closer. 

Parents started clapping and children screamed with joy. Slowly around the corner, Santa’s three helpers came into view, dressed in their green costumes with hats and pointed shoes. As Santiago pushed his walker, Brianna and Jeremiah were on either side, ringing a bell in each hand. As they got closer, the curtain slowly lifted revealing the large decorated platform with Santa’s ornate chair at center stage.

Of course, some of the adults in the crowd immediately focused on the two-wheel walker, the leg braces and the fact that one of the people had Down syndrome but they were still not expecting what was to come.

A few more seconds went by and then the children up front caught a brief glimpse of Douglas and began to yell.

“I see him!!”

“There’s Santa!”

“Here he comes!”

“It’s him! It’s really him!”

Whitney snuck a quick glance over at the man who had, in a matter of days, changed her life, and she was struck by the fact that she’d never seen a more perfect Santa in her life. The flowing white hair, the long white beard, the red suit, and hat all combined to create a real-life version of St. Nicholas that children all over the world loved.

When Douglas rolled his chair into view, Whitney squeezed Phyllis’ hand as she studied the crowd’s reaction. At first, people seemed confused by what they were seeing, and they didn’t seem to know how to react. But as Douglas slowly rolled his wheelchair up the gently inclined ramp to take his position, the room began to grow quiet. Some people looked on with concern and a few with disgust. As the noise in the room lowered, Whitney clearly heard a man in line say, “We didn’t wait for over an hour to see some pathetic loser in a wheelchair.”

Leading his two small children by the hand he left the line and headed for the exit. After a couple of seconds, several other parents followed him with their kids. But everyone else stayed in place, watching as Douglas got into position and then swung himself into the large comfortable chair. Just as they had practiced, Jeremiah immediately grabbed the wheelchair and rolled it out of the way. 

Whitney could feel her heart pounding in her chest as she and Phyllis put their arms around each other and waited. They knew this was the moment that would determine if this was going to be a magical Christmas.

Douglas turned and looked at the now hushed crowd. His eyes crinkled as he broke into a smile so warm that it made each and every child believe he was smiling just at them. Knowing his audience, he paused for effect, and then he placed his hands on each side of his stomach, leaned his head back and in a thunderous voice boomed, “HO! HO! HO! Merry Christmas!!”

For just an instant there was nothing, and then suddenly the children responded with an explosion of delight. Slowly the serious expressions on the faces of their parents dissolved into looks of wonder and then understanding.

Whitney and Phyllis hugged each other tightly – but as happy as they were at that moment, they had no way of knowing that this was just the beginning.

 

***

 

In the early weeks of December, the news began to spread about a small department store in the Midwest that was fighting for its survival against the giant retail chains, but without fanfare or any attempt to attract attention to themselves, they had decided to open up their Christmas celebration to everyone. The story was shared slowly at first but then social media discovered it, and in a matter of days, it swept across the nation.

The small business that couldn’t get noticed online was soon buried with orders from all over the country. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to show their support for their inclusive Christmas.

Sales exploded and Peterson’s struggled to keep up. Temporary employees were hired as fast as they applied, as everyone raced to meet the demand for holiday merchandise.

But no matter how busy she was, each day Whitney made time in her busy schedule to go downstairs just to watch the interaction of Santa and his helpers with the children who were so thrilled to see people just like themselves in traditional holiday roles.

Santiago and Brianna stayed busy handing out treats and serving as translators for children who were overjoyed to have a way to share their gift requests. Meanwhile, Jeremiah found a way to communicate the Christmas spirit to every person he met, often sharing hugs that brought even the hardest of hearts to tears.

But it was Douglas who was the most amazing of all. He had a way of making each child feel like they were the most important person in the world. He treated each boy and girl with patience, gentleness, and good humor. And he took special care with those who were most vulnerable.

Seeing her store succeed financially was immensely gratifying, but it was the children, filled with hope, that touched Whitney’s heart.

The line to visit this particular Santa and his helpers consistently wrapped around several city blocks and many families drove from out of state bringing kids using wheelchairs and walkers. Kids with cerebral palsy and kids with autism. Kids with hearing loss and with visual impairment, and kids with developmental disabilities and other intellectual challenges.

Additionally, there were little ones who were medically fragile, held by a loving mother or father who carefully handed them over to a man they could sense was someone who deeply cared. But most moving of all were the boys and girls who were so gravely ill that their parents knew in their hearts that this would be their last Christmas.

Day after day, children with all types of capabilities, of every ethnicity imaginable, and from every economic background waited patiently for their chance to sit with this Santa. And just as Douglas had predicted, there were many families that were experiencing severe economic hardship. Those parents were often moved to tears when their child was freely given treats and photos along with heartfelt hugs. 

But no matter what the circumstances, Douglas, Santiago, Brianna, and Jeremiah treated each child and their family with a gentle form of joyful compassion as they created a childhood memory that would be treasured for a lifetime. 

Because so many gathered and waited for hours in the early morning darkness, Whitney tried to hire a company to provide coffee, hot chocolate, and donuts to those who were waiting. But the company refused to charge the department store for its services. The last two weeks before Christmas they fed hundreds each morning at their own expense.

The same thing happened when Peterson’s tried to rent more delivery trucks. The supplier with the largest fleet in the state not only provided trucks at no charge they also provided the drivers who eagerly volunteered to lend a helping hand.

The store extended their hours in an effort to accommodate as many families as possible which thrilled Douglas and his helpers because they got to spend even more time with the children.

Although Whitney worried constantly about Santiago’s health, even on the days when he struggled, after taking a break, he couldn’t wait to return to Santa’s side. It turned out that being needed proved to be a very powerful form of medicine.

At an ever-quickening pace, the crowds grew and sales increased. It was going to be close, but Whitney began to believe they had at least a chance to generate enough revenue to pay off all of their debt and start the new year free and clear. It was a blessing that seemed too good to be true.

But in the end, it was true.

On the morning of December 24th, the financial department called Whitney to tell her that Peterson’s was officially in the black. She took the opportunity to instruct the accountants to immediately issue bonus checks for all employees. She knew how hard everyone had worked to make this happen, and she wanted to show her sincere appreciation for their efforts.

The last business day before Christmas was the most chaotic of all. In addition to the crowds, over the last week, the press had descended on the small store. People couldn’t get enough of the little family business that had decided to create a Christmas experience for everyone.

Santiago, Brianna, and Jeremiah had become celebrities in their own right. Each one was embraced by the communities they represented. And it made Whitney wonder how she could have ever doubted their ability to do their jobs.

As the day wound down, Whitney tried to take a few moments to appreciate what had happened over the last month, but it still didn’t seem real. Just four weeks earlier an unusual man had come into her office, introduced her to some amazing individuals and convinced her to do something for other people even as her world was disintegrating.

And, incredibly, his idea had worked.          

But now, sadly, it was time for it to come to an end. Christmas Eve shopping was over, and the stored eventually cleared out. Soon only Whitney and the employees she had fought so hard for were left.

However, before they were sent home for Christmas, she wanted to thank them one last time. After gathering everyone together, she spoke from her heart.

“I just wanted to take the opportunity to tell you how profoundly grateful I am for your extraordinary hard work this holiday season. Your commitment and dedication to saving this business and, more importantly, to create a beautiful Christmas for children of all abilities has touched people nationwide and, hopefully, made each one us a better person. I am so proud of all of you.

“I would particularly like to thank our magnificent Santa, Douglas Renshaw and his three hardworking helpers, Santiago Aguilar, Brianna Sherman, and Jeremiah Bates”

As everyone began to applaud, Whitney held up her hand for quiet. “At this time I am thrilled to announce that Santiago, Brianna, and Jeremiah have each agreed to join the Peterson family as fulltime employees.”

Upon hearing that, the room burst into sustained heartfelt applause, but then slowly switched to silent waving, the ASL version of clapping for Brianna.  

As she looked around at all the faces for one last time, Whitney said, “I think we have each discovered that the real meaning of Christmas is love and acceptance. And it is evident that when we come together and make a concerted effort, we can, in some small way, make the world a little better, a little kinder and a little more inclusive.

“So, now it’s time for you to go home and be with the ones you love. Please cherish the time you get to spend with them and take a moment to reflect on the events of the last few weeks that we were all privileged to be a part of. I wish you all a very Merry Christmas!”

Over the next half-hour, people exchanged small personal gifts and said their goodbyes as they left their jobs behind to go join their families. 

Finally, after a month of frenzied activity filled with overwhelming emotion, only Whitney and Douglas remained as a quiet peacefulness settled over the store.

Sitting side by side at the foot of Santa’s stage, Whitney reached over and took his hand and asked, “What made you think this would work?”

Douglas said, “I believed it would work because I believe in people. It has been my experience that people want to do good things. They just need to be given the opportunity and then they rise to the occasion. What you did was give them something to feel good about. You didn’t exploit or take advantage of anyone, you involved them and made them a part of the celebration. You proved that Christmas belongs to everyone.”

Stroking his beard, he said, “You know, in this story, you were Santa. You took a chance and made this happen. Despite your own problems, you made Christmas special for so many families. Ultimately, this worked because you believed in what we were doing. And I think you will now agree that following your heart is always the right thing to do.”

With deep admiration, Whitney said, “I’ve just never met anyone like you.”

“And I can say the same about you.”

Whitney shook her head in wonder at the sweetest person she had ever met. “I can’t begin to thank you for everything you’ve done.”

Douglas smiled his best Santa smile. “You don’t have to thank me for anything. I risked nothing to do this. You, however, risked everything. All I did was help you see how good of a person you really are. That is why your grandfather would be so proud of you right now. You saved the business the same way he saved my dad. He took a chance on a person, just like you took a chance on me.”

Whitney leaned over and gently kissed him on the forehead. “Will you come back next Christmas?”

“You may not need me next year.”

“I will always need you. We all need you.”

 

 

An hour later, Whitney was alone. After taking one last look at the decorated stage where Santa and his helpers had worked their magic, she returned to her office and was shocked to discover that her desk had been cleaned off. Everything was neatly stacked and in its place. All of the clutter was gone and only one envelope was left lying squarely in the middle of the desktop held in place by a brand-new bottle of aspirin. There was nothing on the envelope except her name. Sitting down, she opened it, unfolded the handwritten letter and began to read.

 

Dear Miss Peterson,

To wish you a Merry Christmas seems hopelessly inadequate in response to what you have done for families like ours. I too have a relative with physical challenges, and I know firsthand what it’s like when someone you love is considered to be different and, therefore, faces unfair judgment and intolerance.

This holiday season your store made a tremendous difference in many lives, and you did it with grace and dignity. It says a great deal about your character that you did not use the people you chose to employ to benefit yourself. The hiring of individuals with disabilities was not a publicity stunt but rather a genuine attempt to make Christmas inclusive for everyone.

Like you, I am also a business owner. In fact, I am one of your primary competitors. As the CEO of one of the largest retailers in North America, I take business very seriously, and normally I would not hesitate to crush a small business like yours. But I was persuaded not to follow my competitive instincts by someone who was greatly impressed by your compassion for others and your love for your employees.

However, I was skeptical about what you were doing so a week ago I decided to visit your store and see for myself. And what I witnessed was amazing. It had never occurred to me that a business could be a place filled with such happiness. Although your financial debt was staggering, you were not focused on money. Your attention was drawn to something far more important.

I saw children and adults enjoying themselves immensely while at the same time treating each other with respect. Not a single person was left out or made to feel like they were not welcome.

What you and your store did was show the world what Christmas is really about. Each child that visited your wonderful Santa received a gift they will never forget for as long as they live. This will forever be the Christmas when they were accepted for simply being who they are.

Therefore, I would like to explain the following decision.

Each year at this time, my foundation chooses a business, an organization or some other worthy entity to support for the holidays. This year I have chosen Peterson’s Department Store.

Your company is a shining example of why our country needs businesses that are a living breathing part of the community and not just some soulless monolith with a corporate office a thousand miles away.

So when financial institutions re-open on the 26th, you will find that you have been given a line of credit that most businesses can only dream of. This will ensure the survival of your family store for generations to come, even as you battle competitors like me. At the start of the new year, your business will not only be solvent, but you will also have a very bright road ahead.

But that is not all.

Going forward, my foundation will also cover all past, present and future medical costs associated with any treatments or medications necessary for Mr. Santiago Aguilar’s complete recovery. It is our intention to see that he receives world-class care at no expense to his family. 

Please understand, Miss Peterson that none of this is charity. It is an act of appreciation for the way you showed the world that Christmas should be inclusive and celebrated by everyone.

And it is also my way of repaying my own personal debt because the man your grandfather so graciously forgave so many years ago was also my dad.

So if you feel compelled to thank someone, please thank my brother Douglas.

This entire enterprise was his idea. He was the one who had faith in your goodness and who believed from the start that you would do the right thing by hiring him and his friends.

In closing, I want to thank you for being the kind of person who could look beyond her own problems and see the needs of others.

I wish you nothing but blessings for the coming year.

Sincerely,

Clifford Renshaw

 

Whitney stared at the letter for a few moments before carefully placing it in the envelope. Then she leaned back in her chair and began to softly weep with joy.

 

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