Tim Stapleton was at that age when a young boy doubts the existence of Santa Claus. So, on that fateful day 62 years ago, at age nine, he snuck out of bed, careful not to awaken his brothers and sisters and crept down the stairs, hoping to catch Santa in the act, or a poser.
What he saw astounded him and what he did kindled the passion he shares every holiday season.
There, before his sleepy eyes, were large boxes, small boxes, tall boxes; all sorts of presents that proved to him Santa was real.
How else could he explain what he saw? The Christmas he knew was a new pair of gloves, a coloring book and crayons, an orange and the big present, a dollar bill from his grandmother. This was a miracle. More boxes than he could count.
Then Tim did something he still regrets today. “Rather than go back upstairs to tell my brothers and sisters Santa Claus came, I opened all the gifts. There were basketballs, footballs, dolls…Hell, I got a licking,” he says, laughing about a selfish indiscretion that is funnier today than it was 62 years ago.
Tim’s parents restored order and passed out the gifts, but it was what his sister said that instilled in him the passion to bring joy to little children and seniors each Christmas season. “My sister said, `for your penance, you have to play Santa Claus the rest of your life.’”
Tim forgot that off-hand remark while growing up but he never forgot the joy he felt that morning. Ten years later, on leave from the Army, he purchased a Santa suit at Woolworths and played Santa for the first time. The joy he brought to his two-year-old sister and seven-year-old brother, who had Down Syndrome, turned his penance into a blessing. It truly was better to give than to receive.
The Oregon resident has been playing Santa since, for 52 years. The children that sit on his knee today are the grand children of those who first sat on his knee so many years ago. There are hundreds each year, thousands over the years. He has been the Santa for many families, schools and the Toledo Holiday Parade. Throw in some hospital and tree lighting visits and Tim’s schedule is full from the first day after Thanksgiving to the day before Christmas Eve.
Over the years, Tim has added some personal touches that have doubting children who see many department store Santas believing he is the real deal. His magic key helps him enter homes without a chimney, the holly spring pinned to his hat and the jingle bells rocking from his wrists help him stand out. It is the magic mirror, however, that really provides the seal of authenticity.
As company administrator for the Workers’ Compensation program for Libbey-Owens-Ford, Tim developed both an understanding of human nature and a belief in the power of the question. Armed with information he gleans from parents and brothers and sisters, he can look in his magic mirror and “see” who is naughty or nice.
Tim writes about one such instance in his book, A View from Santa’s Knee, which he published last year. After hearing from a girl in pre-school that she fights with her brother who bites her, he visited the first grade, sought out the boy, looked in the magic mirror and told him he would have to stop biting his sister.
“It was as if someone had opened a spigot,” he writes. “He just turned white. You could see the blood draining from his face. I thought he was going to pass out. He promised that he wouldn’t fight anymore. Santa told him he would be watching him in the magic mirror and he would be remembered at Christmas.”
The story is just one of many cute, funny and touching stories he tells in the colorful coffee-table book that unwraps the gift he has given to the thousands who have sat on his knee in 52 years. Tim uses that childhood desire to receive gifts to teach children to treat each other better, to be good, to eat their vegetables and that the real gift of the season is in giving, not receiving.
By the way, the surprise Christmas gifts his family received 53 years ago came courtesy of Tim’s godmother who worked at Owens-Illinois. There were some gifts left over from the company Christmas party and there wasn’t a Toys for Tots program back then, so she asked if she could take them to her uncle’s house to share with their family.
Tim doesn’t charge for his visits. Playing Santa is not a job, it’s an “avocation,” one that was born from a duty to do penance, but one that has evolved into much more. Here’s how he explains it, “It’s a troubled world, bringing a little happiness is a good thing.”