Santa stand-in rescues the day for preschoolers, grandson

When her son's teacher revealed that Santa was sick, Jennifer Steiner Maddux had an idea. She knew someone who would fit quite well in a Santa suit.

This column is the fourth in a four-part holiday series presented by Hoptown Chronicle.

One chilly December day in 2014, our morning routine was going along as normal. John had dropped off Anna and Charlie at Pembroke Elementary, and Solomon, then 4 years old, and I were headed into Grace Episcopal Preschool for an exciting day complete with their annual Christmas party and a visit from Santa Claus. As we walked in past construction paper snowflakes hanging from the ceiling and pictures of Santas with cotton ball beards, I noticed the teachers huddled in the hallway. “Everything ok?”  I asked. “We have an issue,” said Solomon’s teacher, Alita Johnson. “Our Santa is sick. We have his red suit, but no one is available to be Santa.”

Startled by the news and feeling empathy for both the teachers and the kids, I had a thought. I happen to know someone who would fit quite well in a Santa suit – 6-foot-4 with a belly that slightly resembled a bowl full of jelly, a jolly old (ish) elf who was practically a kid himself trapped in the body of 72-year-old man – my dad, Tom Steiner.

Jennifer Maddux
Jennifer Steiner Maddux

Not wanting to speak on his behalf and volunteer him for a job he had never done before, I stepped outside to call him, explain the situation and ask if he would be willing to play the part.  First, there was a long pause, then several questions about expectations, and finally, a hesitant, but up for the challenge “Yes!” I ran back inside to let the teachers know we had a Santa! There was much relief and excitement. We made a quick and secretive hand-off of the costume and the teachers went ahead with their morning routine and party preparations. 

My dad and I met in the small chapel at Grace Episcopal to get him changed. The process of becoming Santa took much longer than it should have because we both kept doubling over in laughter as he added each piece of the costume – the fuzzy, white beard, the velvety coat, the wide black belt with gold buckle, the curly white wig, white gloves, and the red hat that was a struggle to keep on straight. Then, he had to practice his “HO! HO! HO!” which only brought more laughter, so much so that I had tears running down my cheeks and had to catch my breath. My dad, a retired minister who is normally wearing his formal black robe and stole when in a chapel, was standing next to the communion table decked out from head to toe as the most secular symbol of Christmas, and I must say, doing so quite convincingly.

As we headed into the Fellowship Hall where the kids would gather, I worried a bit about Solomon. Would he recognize his grandfather? Should I give him a heads up about what was happening? Would his belief in Santa Claus be totally ruined? I decided just to play it by ear, watch his reaction, and take it from there. First came the 3-year-old class. They were mesmerized by Santa. Some ran to hug him, others kept their distance and gave a hesitant wave. All were totally convinced this was the real Santa himself.

My dad was magical. Cheery, kind and welcoming, and loving every minute with the children.  He gave them each a present from his bag and a quick message about the gift of the Christ child as any good minister would. Then, it was time for Solomon’s class to enter. I was nervous, for him and my dad and for me. The concept of Santa Claus is complicated enough for a 4-year-old to understand without finding your beloved Papa in disguise.

As his classmates filed in they were all wide-eyed. Again, some couldn’t wait to greet Santa, others were a little more cautious. Solomon stood back and stared. He watched and surveyed as his eyebrows drew closer together and the wrinkles on his forehead became more visible.  He slowly circled the area, looked at me, then back at Santa, then again at me, then at Santa.  Then the look on his face went from curious, to bothered, and finally to disturbed. I knew I had to step in. I quickly scooped him up and took him out into the hall.

“Solomon,“ I said. “I need to tell to you something. It’s something very important, and I need you to promise that you won’t tell any of your friends.”

He still looked quite distraught, but agreed to keep the secret. I explained to him that Santa Claus woke up sick this morning and was so sorry that he couldn’t come to the party. He didn’t want the kids to be disappointed, so he asked if Papa could wear his suit and pretend to be Santa Claus, and Papa was happy to do so. Solomon immediately let out a huge sigh of relief. His eyebrows relaxed, his body loosened, and the color came back into his cheeks. He had lots of questions, which required some quick and imaginative answers, but he understood and he was so relieved.

We entered the party again. Solomon was still a little cautious, but he eventually made his way to Santa’s lap and delivered a big hug. The photos from that day, as you can imagine, are treasured favorites of mine.

Solomon Maddux poses for a picture with Santa in December 2014. (Hoptown Chronicle photo illustration)

The following Sunday, our entire family was gathered at First Christian Church for our congregation’s annual Christmas party. At the conclusion of the meal, Christmas Carols were sung and with the sound of jingling bells, Santa Claus made a grand entrance. My eyes immediately went to Solomon. How would he react? Would he still believe? Would he question the identity of the man in the red suit? Santa made the rounds visiting children at each table. As he made his way to our end of the room, Solomon hopped out of his chair, walked right up next to Santa and pulled on the sleeve of his red velvety coat. Santa knelt down so Solomon could whisper and as he cupped his hand around his ear I heard Solomon say with great pride, “My Papa wore your suit.”

I immediately let out a huge sigh of relief. My eyebrows relaxed, my body loosened and the color returned to my cheeks. I was so relieved.

My dad continued to step in as Santa for the next three years at Grace Episcopal Preschool, even after Solomon had moved on to elementary school. It was a reminder to me that the message of Christmas comes in many forms, whether from someone wearing a robe and a stole, or a red suit and a white beard, or a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger.  All you have to do is believe.

Jennifer Steiner Maddux moved to Hopkinsville as a teenager when her father became the minister at First Christian Church. She and her family live on a farm near Pembroke. She previously served as an executive director of the Pennyroyal Arts Council and the United Way of the Pennyrile. She’s currently the Community Reinvestment Act officer for Planters Bank.

Jennifer Steiner Maddux