My Christmas Visitation
Most of you know my story about how I became Santa Claus. If you will allow me to retell the story, I will let you share in a special moment I had this past season.
My father, who was also my best friend growing up, loved Christmas. He would decorate our little house early in the season and would invite a professional photographer to take a photo of my brother and me in front of our fireplace. Our stockings that my mother had made for us would be “hung by the chimney with care” and a plastic molded light-up Santa Claus would be near the fireplace.
Dad would then take the photo to his print shop and make custom Christmas cards, complete with a poem he would write, to send to all our friends and family. This was in the 1950’s, long before family photo Christmas cards became so popular.
On weekends, Dad had a 16-mm projector with which he would show Christmas movies projected in our back yard on the side of our neighbor’s garage. My favorite movie was the original Disney version of “Mickey’s First Christmas.”
On Labor Day weekend of 1962, my Dad’s older brother, Fred, invited him to ride to Camp LeJeune Marine Base to pick up his brother’s two sons who were getting out of the Corps. Dad had never driven a car, but he felt like the least he could do was to ride along with his brother and keep him company.
The day before their departure, Dad was in the bathroom shaving when I walked by the door. He called out to me and apologized for not being able to spend the holiday weekend with me and my brother Walt. I told him I understood he wanted to spend time with his own brother, plus this would be a chance for him to ride in the 1950 Ford convertible Uncle Fred had restored as a gift for his oldest son, who was married and expecting their first child.
I told Dad not to worry about us, and we could spend time with each other when he returned home. He told me that since I was the older brother, I was responsible for looking out for my younger brother and Mom while he was gone. I promised him I would and that I loved him, and we would celebrate the Labor Day holiday when he returned home. That was the last conversation we had together.
On the way home, all four men were killed in a horrific accident around Kinston, NC. My aunt lost her husband and both of her children, my oldest cousin left his new bride who was expecting their first child. My younger cousin left a fiancé he was engaged to be married to, and my father left my Mom and my brother and me.
Our hometown was devastated by the tragedy. Several days later, four flag draped coffins were carried into the sanctuary of Wesley Memorial Methodist Church on Main Street in High Point. I will never forget the military honor guard carrying all four caskets, while my own Boy Scout troop stood at attention as the caskets were carried away. At the cemetery, taps being played as four caskets were lowered into graves, gripped my heart, as I am sure it does anyone who listens to the forlorn tune at a time like that.
When Christmas came around that year, I really didn’t feel like celebrating. There was no photo taken of my brother and me, no family Christmas card, no lights or decorations and I can’t even remember having a Christmas tree. The Snider Family would always have a big family Christmas party at another uncle’s house, and all the uncles, aunts, and cousins would come. We didn’t have a party that year; and haven’t ever since.
I belonged to the Methodist Youth Fellowship at Wesley Memorial Church, and at Christmas that year, our teacher, Mrs. Peters, asked for a volunteer to be Santa Claus to take gifts to a mission the church sponsored in a poor part of town. Almost as a joke, someone spoke out and said, “Cliff can do it…he’s the fattest one in here…he’ll fit into the suit.” Everyone laughed, except for me, but I accepted the role.
On a Saturday in December of 1962, I put on a rented corduroy Santa suit and strapped on an artificial wig and beard. We cut down a small cedar tree from a lot the church owned and with a bag of toys over one shoulder and the cedar tree over the other, I went “Ho, Ho, Ho’ing” into the Beddington Street Mission followed by my fellow class mates.
While my classmates setup the Christmas tree and began decorating it with home-made ornaments, I found a chair and began to listen to the requests of the children. And do you know what? Those children didn’t care that I was a 15-year-old teenager dressed up as Santa Claus. As far as they were concerned, Santa Claus himself had come to visit them, and they were just as excited, maybe even more, than children who visit with me today.
As I listened to the requests of each child before I gave them a small gift from my bag, the Holy Spirit tapped me on the shoulder, I believe, just like it was yesterday, and said, “I know you have a broken heart, Cliff, but by bringing joy and happiness to other people, as Santa Claus, I am going to heal your broken heart!” And that is how my Santa journey began.
The rest of the story could fill the book I have already written, and the second one I will soon have ready to publish, so for now, let me take you back to the Christmas of 2019.
On Sunday, December 15th I was planning on my annual trip to a charity event for Kid’s First Carolinas with my grandson, Robert Clifton Snider, IV. At 6:15 in the morning I got a text message from him telling me he wouldn’t be able to go with me. With a broken heart, I drove myself to Charlotte, where I would be flown by helicopter to see over 500 excited children. Upon arriving at the high school where the event was to be held, I was escorted to a break room next to the kitchen where employees could change into their work clothes. Here I could change into my Santa outfit.
There was nowhere to hang my heavy coat, but some of the lockers were open, so I hung my Santa suit on one. There was a name taped to the locker, Eva! Eva was my Mother’s name! Right then, I knew she was looking over me from Heaven, and that Robby was going to be okay. I was so moved by the moment, I took my cell phone out of my pocket and snapped a couple of photos of my suit hanging on the locker with her name on it.
The rest of the day became a blur of activity as I was driven to the heliport and flown back to the soccer field of the high school. The helicopter landed to the cheers of some 500 excited screaming children. The Secret Service escorted me into the cafeteria where I posed for hours for photos with the children. When the event was finally over and I was able to check into my motel, I called my wife to tell her I was safe and fill her in on the details of my day. I told her about my locker room experience and said I would text her the photos. After we said our “goodbyes,” I opened my photos on the phone to send to her…and there was no photo from the locker room. There were photos of me in the helicopter, with the children and the Secret Service…but no locker room. It was truly a visitation for my eyes and heart only.
Three days later, on December 18th, I made my annual visit to the preschool day care at First United Methodist Church in High Point, two blocks down the street from where my church, Wesley Memorial Methodist once stood.
The children were gathered for a pancake breakfast, and when I entered the dining room, excitement filled the room as about fifty preschool children and their parents welcomed Santa to their school. As I made my way to the stage next to a beautifully decorated Christmas tree and got seated in a nice comfortable chair, the children began to come visit with me one at a time so they could give me their Christmas request and have their photo taken.
I was about halfway through the line when a couple came up to see me carrying two twins of about three years old, a boy and a girl. The mother introduced herself by saying, “I am Bill Snider’s daughter, and these are his grandchildren, and we would really love to have their photo taken with you.”
William Fred Snider, Jr., Bill Snider! That is the baby that my cousin was expecting when he died in 1962! Here were his beautiful great-grandchildren, Scarlett and Snider Krew O’Brien, wanting to meet Santa Claus, their very own fourth cousin!
Before my emotions got the best of me, we posed for some beautiful photos with the children and their parents, and they moved on. I didn’t even have the presence of mind to hand them my own cell phone so I could get a photo too. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to. But at that moment God confirmed His faithfulness to me, that He in fact, had healed my broken heart, and 57 years after I first put on the red suit of Christmas…I was still bringing joy and happiness to His children….And so, my journey as Santa Claus continues.