Minneapolis Star Tribune

STAR TRIBUNE (Mpls.-St. Paul) Newspaper of the Twin Cities

Peg Meier; Staff Writer

Santa‘s Christmas wish is already coming true.

This Santa hoped to tell his stories to children. He was weary of asking one child after another, “What do you want for Christmas?” He yearned to proclaim the meaning of Christmas as a season for giving, not getting.

You know what? He has found Twin Cities stores that agree with him that there’s more to Christmas than selling their stuff. Once upon a time (in 1996, to be exact), he was asked to be Santa by the businesspeople at 50th Street and France Avenue in Minneapolis. He hesitated. He was uncomfortable with the commercial image of Santa. Santa should spread joy and goodness, he believed – not greed. “I thought they could find someone else to don a white beard and a red suit,” he recalls.

But this was his big chance to propose his idea. He said to the merchants: “Santa’s got to tell stories. People could bring gifts to Santa.” To Santa? Yes, he said. But what would Santa do with presents? He would give them to St. Joseph’s Home for Children.

And so it was.

In about three years, the big fancy Nordstrom store at the Mall of America heard about this Santa and wanted to hire him. He interviewed and explained that he wanted to tell his stories to the children, not just bounce them on his knee and take requests for presents. But the store wanted a more store-like Santa Claus. And this Santa, needing to feed his wife and children, said, “Well, I don’t know. But I’ll give it a try. But remember, please, that I’m a storyteller. Sometimes I’d like to tell stories to the children.”

The miracle of a power failure at just the right moment helped make it happen. For several holiday seasons, he was the traditional Santa in a chair, having his photo taken with children, taking their gift requests. Then one afternoon, the amazing thing happened. The photographer’s computer overloaded an electrical circuit. The power went out in Santa Lane. Big people and little people were startled. Santa saw a way to make everybody – including himself – feel better about the darkness.

He remembers, “I stood up and started telling stories about the North Pole and Santa’s mission.” Families gathered around him. He strolled about, found kids, crouched down to their level, looked right into their eyes and spun stories about what happens when people are kind to each other. This was exactly what he had always wanted.

His supervisor (yes, even Santa has a supervisor) from Nordstrom’s regional headquarters in Chicago happened to witness the scene. She marveled at Santa’s storytelling prowess and said to him, “Why can’t we do this all the time?” “Great idea!” said Santa, a twinkle in his eye.

So starting last year, this Santa told stories to children at Nordstrom on weekends. There were no waiting lines, no gift lists, no professional photo-shooters. (Families that want photos with Santa should bring a camera.) He’s back at Nordstrom this year. Kowalski’s Markets also asked him to stop in at nine stores. Santa reports to us: “Nordstrom and Kowalski’s love it and get tons of good feedback, and I’m having a ball.”

He said he sometimes is asked how his little stories for children can compete against elaborate tales so prevalent on television and movies. First he responds that he’s old but not completely old-fashioned; he loves being alive in this day and age of mass media. But he does resent how American society has turned over storytelling to video. He speaks of a Kaiser Family Foundation survey that found that today’s school-age children spend more than 44 hours a week in front of an electronic screen.

“Kids today don’t get the opportunity to develop their imaginations,” Santa said, sadly. He hopes that kids who hear his stories will have “a unique experience to create images in their brains.”

So often he hears an adult say to a child, “Tell Santa what you want for Christmas.” This Santa chats a bit and then says, “I bet you want to know what I want for Christmas.” Children do. He wants them to know that every time a child does something good for someone else, jingle bells ring at the North Pole for Santa and the reindeer.

In fact, they’re ringing right now. Listen. Can you hear them?