The magic of Christmas: Helpers shed some light on Santa Claus


Family Court Judge James McGiffin as Santa poses with Aliyah, 4, and Ariyah Matthews, 8, at the Santa Workshop in downtown Dover on Saturday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — Believe in the magic of Christmas.

It’s a pretty common concept.

The Sun first wrote about it in 1897 when the paper answered a letter to the editor from 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon, who — prompted by her doubting peers — questioned the existence of Santa. The paper’s response brought the well-known answer, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

The holiday movie, “The Polar Express,” in 2004 took the concept to the big screen with the story based on a 1985 book by Chris Van Allsburg, that one could hear Santa’s bells only if they believed in the magic.

Dan Slipetsky of Bear calls on the legend of St. Nicholas to explain his belief in the magic of the season. And he should know, he’s been helping spread the spirit of Christmas for 19 years.

“Read about this live, real person who lived many years ago in a small town in Turkey and see what he did and how he treated the people and read about his kindness,” he said of St. Nicholas.

“Many people believe in Santa and the magic of Santa and this goes beyond the religious aspects of it,” he said. “I think that’s a tradition that we need to carry on. I think that’s a wonderful thing to concentrate on — the spirit and the believing of the holiday season.”

Like many who get tapped to help Santa during his busiest season, Mr. Slipetsky was called to the task by his full white beard and white hair. The same was true for Dover resident Jim McGiffin, who joined the team about six years ago.

Bill Hare of Dover didn’t have the long, white locks and beard, but he had the heart and spirit required when he started nearly 20 years ago.

Being one of Santa’s helpers is a weighty responsibility, both literally and figuratively.

“I only had to spend a week at the North Pole and Santa kind of held a class and told us what to do. He said, ‘You’re going to be my helpers and my representatives.’ We got to have dinner with Mrs. Claus. She made cookies for us,” Mr. Hare said.

The most difficult part of the job for him to learn? “Probably making sure we can emulate Santa with the ‘Ho, ho ho’ and having the proper weight for the season. You’d practice it in the shower. Santa would call you on occasion and say, ‘Let me hear it’ and once he said ‘You got it, you were OK.’”

“He wasn’t that particular about gaining all the weight because he said you could use some padding if you needed it. You’ll probably eat plenty of cookies leading up to Christmas and on Christmas Eve, you’ll eat tons of cookies,” said Mr. Hare, who has held a newborn baby in his arms and had a man as old as 90 — a three-war combat pilot — sit on his lap.

“I’ve had the mayor (of Dover Robin Christiansen) sitting on my lap — got that picture, too,” he said.

It seems Dover city officials understand the need to believe in Santa.

Mr. McGiffin recalls a time when Tony DePrima — then Dover’s city manager — sat on his lap.

“I had a 60-year old, big, heavy guy,” Mr. McGiffin said, laughing about Mr. DePrima’s visit. “He came into Santa’s house and he sat right on my lap. That was before he lost about 60 pounds. He’s svelt now. “

His youngest visitor: A 2-week-old child.

When greeting visitors, Mr. Slipetsky appreciated Santa’s key words of advice for responding to children’s wish lists. “Don’t promise anything,” he said. “You can listen to their wish list — and some of them hand you a list of toys that goes down one page and down the next. Any child who asks Santa for a live animal, I say, they must go back to the family and sit down at the table and discuss this issue of acquiring a live animal. I tell the children, you all have to agree that this is a good idea.”

Mr. McGiffin said his overall goal for helping Santa each season is “to try to make everybody happy and we try to make everybody enjoy the Christmas spirit.”

Family Court Judge James McGiffin portrays Santa in downtown Dover on Saturday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

The trio of helpers knows firsthand, as do parents everywhere, that the questions about Santa’s legendary ability to deliver packages to boys and girls around the world on Christmas Eve persist. They’re used to the dubious looks by aging children and the pointed questions seeking answers.

For those doubters, Mr. Hare said, “Like I always told my children, that if you don’t believe in the magic of Christmas, then on Christmas morning when you get up if there’s not packages there, then you won’t be upset. If you don’t believe, you won’t receive and then you can’t be upset.

“Because the magic of Christmas is there all the time.”

Our three local Santa helpers, who have nearly 50 years of combined experience, aided the Delaware State News in getting some answers from Santa this week, so readers could learn a little bit about the jolly old soul in the red suit and how he makes that magic happen.

Describe your holiday season.

“My mantra this Christmas season is to spread goodwill and cheer — goodwill to all men.

“What I want to get across to people is love and gratitude. Christmas is about love. We should be grateful for what we have. I want people to be happy and smile when they see me. I want them to treat each other nicely and kindly. I tell the young children this is a time for presents and holiday foods and traditions, but it’s also a time to be good and time to stop fighting.”

What’s the oddest request you’ve had from a child?

“A little girl (whose family was in the military) said she didn’t think that I knew where she lived and she didn’t think she was going to get anything because Santa didn’t know where she lived — and she wasn’t gonna tell me — and I said OK, you don’t have to tell me because
Santa knows. When she got down and started to leave, I said, ‘Oh, by the way, I found you last year in Hawaii, didn’t I? Her eyes got big as silver dollars.

“The little ones don’t know that you have all the contacts.”

… “One odd question was from a young gentlemen. What do you hope to find under the tree with your name on it? he said, ‘Santa, you got to help my father find a new wife.’ And I looked at the father in the audience there — he couldn’t hear what we were saying. I waved to the father and said ‘Good luck.’ I told the youngster, ‘I’ll do what I can.’”

How old were the youngest and oldest people who have sat on your lap?

“The youngest was 3 days old. The oldest was at Concord Mall. She was 103 and sat in my lap and told me what she wanted for Christmas. We had a wonderful time.”

“Santa’s happy to see anybody. Santa is there for kids and adults, both.”

What’s your favorite memory if you can name just one?

“A little girl came up to me and she handed me a drawing she did specifically for me, having remembered me the year before. It said ‘I love you, Santa’ and that was pretty nice.”

What do you do when children are afraid of Santa?

“Just keep a little space and wave and say, ‘What do you want for Christmas?’ Talk to them and let them warm up. If they don’t warm up … then you just kind of play it by ear.”

We understand the need for confidentiality, is there any little-known fact you can share? Who’s your favorite reindeer?

“I can tell you this: Santa relies very heavily on Mrs. Claus for support.”

“I don’t have a favorite reindeer.”

What words of wisdom do you have for any doubters who don’t believe, or may be questioning, the magic of Christmas?

“I would say that anybody who doubts Santa exists doesn’t understand the spirit of Christmas. The spirit of Christmas is what Santa is all about and the spirit is in more people this time of year than any time.

“You just see it when people treat each other well. They go outside themselves and they give each other gifts, and it just improves the world for a time. The world is a slightly better place.”

How do you get all those presents delivered on Christmas?

“I’m magic and that’s all you need to know.”

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