[itvt] Column: The ITV Doctor Is In! The Christmas Column

Dear Readers:

As some of you know, the good doctor sometimes puts on the red velvet suit for local community groups. Done it for years. And just for grins, I thought I share a few observations from behind the beard.

In our family we have ongoing debates on the commercialization of Christmas. My wife takes the position that all the good that is done at Christmas--donations, food drives, helping those in need--should be done all year long. And she's right (as usual). But my position is that if we didn't do good at Christmas, we might not do it at all.

Today's column is less about the holiday itself, and more about the big guy: Santa Claus.

The story of St. Nicholas was given life in 1822 by Clement Clarke Moore, a professor of Oriental and Greek Literature. He actually didn't acknowledge his authorship of "A Visit from St. Nicholas" (later renamed "The Night Before Christmas") until 1844. And today it is the most published, most read, most memorized and most collected book in all of Christmas literature.

As one who has worn the beard and the red suit for about 25 years, I think the reason is simple: it's magic.

The magic is that Santa allows children to suspend disbelief. For just a few moments, when they are visiting with Santa, everything is possible. Magic is possible.

Joseph Chilton Pierce's message in "The Magical Child" (1977) was simple: it is never too late to play, for we are all magical children.

Santa helps keep that message alive.

It began for me when a community organization we worked with in New Jersey "lost" their Christmas Party Santa: he was transferred out of state. So being a natural ham, and sharing my father's resonant baritone voice (note: it helps if Santa has a good "Ho Ho Ho!"), I volunteered my services. I ordered a beautiful red velvet suit, plus professional beard and wig, from the Sears Catalog of all places. This was pre-Internet, of course.

Then we had to deal with our son Ricky. At the age of three, he was a true believer in Santa Claus. So we crafted a letter to Ricky, from Santa. It said that Santa Claus needed a helper, and would Ricky ask his Dad to take the job as Santa for the community group (it also said Santa's suit would be delivered in a few days).So when I got home from work (at Showtime), Ricky literally flew at me, grabbed me around the neck and said, "Daddy! Be Santa!!!"

That worked.

A few days later I suited up for my first appearance as the big guy. And here is a tip for those of you considering a second career: Always have a mirror available when you're suiting up. I didn't, that first time. And it wasn't until I saw pictures of the little ones with Santa Claus that I realized I put on the beard in such a way that the moustache was over the bridge of my nose! I had no idea. The beard and wig were absolutely HUGE. A cloud of fluffy white hair. It was all I could do to keep from sneezing. Which was a good thing, because given the way the beard was across my nose, if I sneezed the whole thing would have gone flying across the room!

In subsequent years I got my costume organized and started to pay more attention to the little ones. Some of the kids go through the motions, give Santa a laundry list of desired toys, hop off my lap and head to the nearest toy store. But sometimes there is a bit extra. A connection.

Early on, I was working with our SIDS non-profit group at a "Christmas House" in one of the swankier New Jersey towns. Santa was there during after school hours. We had a trickling of kids one day, and one homeless guy. He came in, waited patiently for his turn, and proceeded to come sit on Santa's lap. He talked about his mother, whom he hadn't seen for years. He talked about his kids, who apparently were with his mother.

I just listened.

And then I asked the question I always ask: "What do YOU want for Christmas?"

"I'd like a hug," he said.

So I gave him my biggest hug. And a candy cane.

And he walked out with a smile.

A few years later we moved to Maryland and I became the centerpiece of "Cookies and Storytime With Santa" at our local community center. We developed a template for the sessions: no more than 20 children, cookies and juice boxes to start, songs and bell-ringing (I had acquired LOTS of sleighbells), reading "The Night Before Christmas," and then some personal time on Santa's knee.

It was a family affair. My wife Jane took the role of Felice Navidad, Santa's wacky niece, and entertained the kids with balloon animals until Santa arrived. My son Ricky and his girlfriend-now-wife Ange were Elves, and took the pictures of Santa and the kids.

I had repeat customers over the years, ages 2 to 7. We talked. I gave them a little beribboned bell (as in The Polar Express), and a candy cane. Sometimes they brought cookies for Santa (!!!), and some brought lists. It was a pretty wide demographic spread, and their lists reflected that.

But in almost every session there was one little kid who made it all extra special for me. The little boy or girl who plunks down on my left knee and just STARES at me. Now the suit is soft, the beard and wig are realistic (but obviously not real). None of the costume would stand up to careful examination. But that's not what they look at; they look in my eyes.

Do you remember the scene from Spielberg's "Hook," where one of the lost boys grabs the adult Peter (Robin Williams) by the ears? The kid pushes Peter's facial skin around until he finally looks in his eyes and says, "Peter, there you are!"

That's the magic. We get very quiet. Sometimes they will grab my white gloved hand and knead it like a kitten. Or stroke the fur on my sleeve. I just let them take it all in. And then we talk. Not about presents. Usually about family. Little sisters and big brothers. Aunts, uncles, parents and grandparents. The families are pretty mixed.

And when we're done, we get to my FAVORITE part. After we've talked, and I know who brought them, I say, "you know, at Christmas, Moms (or whoever) needs extra hugs. So after I give you my biggest hug, I want you to give them YOUR biggest hug."

If the kid is older, I'll say, "Hug them until they fart!" WOW! Santa said FART!!!!!

So they jump off my lap and go flying across the room and tackle whomever they came with. And everybody laughs.

It's the best.

So if you're considering joining the Santa crowd, I heartily recommend it. And I'll leave you all with this thought, courtesy of Clement Clarke Moore. It helps if you read it out loud:

I heard him exclaim, 'ere he drove out of sight,
"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!"


The iTV Doctor is Rick Howe, who provides interactive video consulting services to programmers, advertisers and technology providers. He is the recipient of a CTAM Tami Award for retention marketing and this year was inducted into The Cable Pioneers. He is also the co-author of a patent for the use of multiscreen mosaics in EPG's. Endorsed by top cable and satellite distributors, "Dr" Howe still makes house calls, and the first visit is always free. His services include product development, distribution strategy and the development of low-cost interactive applications for rapid deployment across all platforms.


Have a question for the iTV Doctor? Email him at TheiTVDoctor@gmail.com

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