Kevin Meeks noticed the elderly woman, bundled up, shuffling toward the door of the Toledo Food Mart in East Toledo. He approached her in his Santa suit and gave her a wrapped Christmas gift. She stopped, looked up at him, took the gift and wept. He asked what was wrong. He said, she replied, “Young man, you don’t realize all my family is dead. You don’t understand, I haven’t received a Christmas gift in 10 years.”
That simple act of kindness from a few years ago is in keeping with Christianity’s long tradition of gift giving from the Biblical story of the three magi to the model for the modern day Santa Claus—St. Nicholas.
The commercialization of “Xmas” has nearly obliterated that Christian root of Santa Claus. But, Meeks and members of the small church he belongs to are working to reestablish that connection.
The associate pastor of the Calvary Bible Pentecostal Holiness Church on Fourth Street has been passing out small gifts to strangers for 11 years. Dressed as North Pole Santa, he and Danny Chapman, dressed as South Pole Santa, and their elves passed out more than 400 presents last Saturday to strangers shopping at the Food Mart on Main Street.
The gifts range from Beanie Babies, hats and gloves to candy and Bibles. Each package contains a note that states ‘Jesus loves you’ and includes the name and address of the church.
For those who are homeless, or for those without family, the gift may be the only one they receive this Christmas. Chapman says the reaction from strangers is priceless. “Some of the people don’t know what it’s like to get a gift, to have someone give them something with no return,” he said. “It’s the smile that gets you. That’s the gift you give them, their smile.”
I saw that smile many times last Saturday as my daughter and I rang the bell for the Salvation Army. I saw shoppers cautiously accept a gift from someone they didn’t know, expecting some strings to come with it. Maybe some proselytizing. Maybe a call to volunteer. They are surprised and grateful when they get just the gift and a “Merry Christmas.”
Meeks said the first year the church passed out 40 Bibles, but received a negative response. So, while they still give out a few Bibles, most of the presents are non-religious. To be sure, he hopes the gifts will attract new members to a congregation which numbers 25 to 30. But, this outreach is more about making people smile.
“Everybody has some kind of problem this time of year,” the East Toledoan said. “We all go through some type of depression some time in our lives. We’re just trying to help them get through the season…If we can stop one person from committing suicide or help one person realize that someone loves them, we’ve done what we wanted to do.”
The program is a year-long effort. Meeks and others search for buyouts and deals and accept donations. They had 1,100 gifts on hand and aim to expand the program to three other locations in the poorer sections of the city.
For Chapman, an East Toledo resident who has donned the Santa suit for more than 30 years and who has appeared at stores, parties, and private functions, Christmas is a time to give back, to return the generosity he was given one special Christmas in 1961. That year, his father, a roofer, fell off a roof and couldn’t work. The Salvation Army paid the rent and utilities and gave the family Christmas presents.
Playing Santa reminds him of that tough time, reminds him of how his mother used to ring the bell in front of Tiedtke’s to help the less fortunate and how a stranger’s kindness helped his family get through it. The kindness he delivers today also benefits him. “I can have a bad day and put on that Santa suit and it takes over and I’ve turned a bad day into a good one.”
Giving is not restricted to material gifts for these two Santas and their helpers. One man who crossed the Martin Luther King Bridge to shop at the Food Mart faced pushing his cart back uphill through the snow on one of the coldest days of the year. Pastor John Vance, one of the elves, stopped the man and gave him a ride across the bridge to his home. He was Muslim.