'Twas the night before Christmas a few years back when Santa made a special visit, and connection, with a young Gresham resident.
In one home along his busy route, there was a single mother and her autistic son. The mother had written to Santa about her child, who had not spoken a word in years and didn't like contact with other people. But he loved Santa, she wrote, and was excited every Christmas to open his gifts.
So when Santa visited that home, there was one creature stirring. The boy had stayed up to try and spot St. Nicholas.
"He heard me come in, yelled 'Santa!' ran down the stairs and gave me a big hug," Santa Claus told The Outlook.
The pair ended up chatting for a while that evening before Santa continued on his quest of delivering presents across the world. Since that night, Santa said he still gets updates from the mother about her son, who now talks and hugs his mom, and is thriving at a local high school.
It's those types of connections that fill Santa with joy. He wants more people to reach out to others in their communities.
"There is good in all of us," he said. "You never know when you might be passing by me on the street."
Santa and Mrs. Claus spend more time in East Multnomah County than you may expect. A common misconception people have about Santa is that he loads all the toys onto a sled up at the North Pole on Christmas Eve. In reality, he has several waystations around the world where he stops to pick up more gifts and let his trusted team of reindeer take a break.
Some of those waystations are in special sites like the peak of Mt. Everest, while others are located in communities that have embraced the spirit of Christmas. Five years ago, Gresham became one of Santa's stops.
It was a random act of kindness that spurred the decision.
Santa was standing in line at Café Delirium, on Main Avenue, in disguise. The person in front of him bought coffee for the next five people in line, telling the barista, "Well, Santa does it."
"Gresham is a town that has grown into a middle-sized city but has maintained the kindness of a small town," Santa said. "We knew we had to add an extra stop on our route."
At each place Santa and Mrs. Claus designate as a waystation, they create a local charity run by human helpers. Secret Santa Charities helps Santa spread his message of holiday cheer and raises money for those in need.
The nonprofit organizations feed and clothe the homeless, provide gifts to children in need, feed struggling families during the holidays and much more. The first autumn night that falls below freezing, Secret Santa Charities delivers food, gloves, hats, socks, scarves and coats to homeless people in East Multnomah County.
"We are only a strong society when we take care of the weakest among us," Santa said. "I can't stand to see people be neglected."
Snickerdoodles and smiles
Santa has a couple secrets as to how he can keep up his energy during such a busy time of the year.
"I was blessed when we began our toy giving mission with long life and nearly limitless energy," Santa said.
But on the days he feels tired, he said drinking coffee with milk and eating lots of cookies helps. His favorite cookie is a snickerdoodle — partly because of how fun it is to say, he admits with a smile.
Throughout the year, Secret Santa Charities raises money to provide the best possible Christmas for almost 400 families. The group then has Santa visit, bringing three articles of clothing for each person; three toys for each child; and a full Christmas dinner.
"It's magical when you can visit with those families because they light up and often break into tears," Santa said. "It can be horrifically embarrassing and difficult for a parent to ask for help."
A visit from Santa or Mrs. Claus turns what could be a difficult time of the year into a joyous occasion.
Santa often likes to swing by Gresham from the North Pole to leave gifts for local kids to discover. He enjoys hand-carving Christmas ornaments and toys like tops and wooden airplanes during his free time. He then visits in the middle of the night to leave them in parks or outside of local businesses for people to discover the next morning.
Santa also likes writing a blog, found at the Secret Santa Charities website — santaclauspdx.com, where he shares fun updates on how things are going at the North Pole and gives facts about the reindeer.
For example, did you know that both male and female reindeer have horns? Males lose their horns in the late fall, which means most of the reindeer that pull Santa's sleigh are actually female.
"We have lots of reindeer, and as they get older we replace them," Santa said.
While the older reindeer enjoy a well-deserved retirement up at the North Pole, the new ones take their place to help pull the sleigh full of gifts each year. Santa said the new reindeer are named in honor of the original eight based on their position on the sled.
The ultimate goal for Santa is for Gresham to continue to spread holiday cheer. His tip for making it onto the "nice list" is to make an effort for those around you. Kids can help their parents around the house, work hard in school, eat lunch with someone new at school, be active in their community and try to be nice to others.
"You will not believe the warm glow you get when you help someone," Santa said.
Santa often walks throughout Gresham in disguise as he checks in with the charity. Even without his famous red coat and bag full of gifts, he is hard to miss with his white beard, spectacles and jolly laugh.
During his rounds, children and adults will often do a double-take when they spot Santa.
"I like to give them a wink and tap the side of my nose," Santa said with a laugh.
So next time you are about to fall asleep in Gresham, listen for the jingle of bells. It's probably Santa strolling through your neighborhood, leaving behind toys, treats and kindness.
Meet Santa and Mrs. Claus
There are plenty of opportunities to meet Santa in Gresham.
On Saturday, Nov. 30, he and Mrs. Claus will be featured guests during the annual Spirit of Christmas celebration. During the Cocoa Crawl earlier that day, beginning at 3:45 p.m., the couple will be in downtown Gresham to meet with families visiting local shops.
Then at 5 p.m. they will be escorted by Gresham Fire and Police to the Center for the Arts Plaza, 488 N.E. Third St., where people can get photos while enjoying live music, free refreshments and other activities. Santa will also help light the 60-foot Ponderosa Pine alongside Mayor Shane Bemis and other dignitaries at 6 p.m.
Santa and Mrs. Claus plan on being at Gresham Station Shopping Center from 4-8 p.m. on Mondays, Dec. 2, 9 and 16. Visitors will be able to get free visits and professional photos with the couple, complimentary hot cider or cocoa, listen to Christmas Carolers and much more.
Also at Gresham Station, at the corner of Northwest Civic Drive and Northwest 12th Street, Santa will bring some of his live reindeer for community members to meet. The free event will take place from 2-6 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 14, and Sunday, Dec. 15.
If someone wants to help Santa and Mrs. Claus support the community, they should visit the Secret Santa Charities' website at santaclauspdx.com. All donations help spread cheer to local families. On the website kids can also write letters to the couple.
The Secret Santa Charities page on Facebook, @santaclauspdx, is a great way to keep up-to-date with Santa and get hints on where he has left his hand-carved gifts.
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