By MICHAEL SHORT
LEWES — It is the license plate that you notice first.
You see it as you hurry to Mass at St. Jude the Apostle.
The owner of the “Santa” plate, Bill Ebner and his wife Kathy, are fixtures at the Lewes church. Kathy is the pastoral associate/ spiritual director and pens a weekly column called “Spiritually Speaking.” Both have helped with youth activities and RCIA.
But you won’t see Bill much this time of year. He’s a bit busy with his job helping Santa Claus. For 17 years, the retired Postal Inspection Service employee has worked at the role, most recently at the Christiana Mall near Newark.
With his flowing white hair and long beard covering a gentle way and ready smile, he looks the part. It’s a job that he loves, but it can be difficult and challenging.
It is both heartbreaking and hopeful, perhaps in equal measure. Santa has been told by a foster child that all “I want for Christmas is a mommy and daddy.”
That was in his first year.
“Believe me, I prayed very hard,” he said.
During his second year, a girl climbed on to his lap and said, “All I want is for Santa to bring my mommy back from heaven.”
He explained that only God can do that and asked her to imagine a walk with him through the grass and brightly colored butterflies until she could see her mother sitting quietly nearby. “When you need to, when you go to bed, you take this walk again and you talk to your mom,” he said.
Santa has visited with terminally ill children and had parents who had lost their jobs. “It’s very hard sometimes not to cry or shed a tear,” he said.
There are moments of joy and the moments of laughter, like the little girl being pushed toward him by her parents. She turned, wagged one finger, put her hand on her hip and said “Mom, Dad, he’s a stranger.”
Trying not to laugh, he told her that she was correct, complimented her parents and asked them to introduce them so they would no longer be strangers and be able to talk. “Moments like that make it worthwhile,” he said.
He’s had his beard pulled, sometimes not by the children. There are the usual questions, like “Where are your reindeer? Aren’t they on the roof?” He tells the children (and adults) that they used to be, but now they’re in a nice, warm nearby stable.
“Why are you driving a car?” children will ask. “Do you know how many accidents there would be if I ride around in my sleigh?” he answers.
Santa has learned to be careful to say “I’ll do the best I can” when children request big ticket items like Xboxes or iPhones that can bust the budget.
He’s also not a big fan of the naughty and nice lists. He worries that children may not want to see him if they are afraid of being on the wrong list. “You’re trying aren’t you? That’s what you have to do, try. And when you make a mistake, say you’re sorry,” Ebner tells them.
Ebner said that parents should remember that it’s common for children to be frightened by Santa Claus and that that is perfectly normal.
One mother, just like in “Miracle on 34th Street,” asked him for a house. She was faced with eviction and the state told her they would take away her 2-year-old because they had no place to stay. “I don’t have a house I can give you, but I will say a prayer that you get a house,” he said.
The next year, she told him that she had a home because someone had moved out of their home and let them live there.
“God can change hearts easier than move mountains. … God has been there with me the whole time,” he said.
“I try to keep God in the middle of it,” he said.
Santa Clauses sometimes work with a regular partner to cover two work shifts. Ebner’s partner is a former professional wrestler who wrestled under the name “Commissioner Claus,” a hulking man with both naughty and nice tattoos.
He has also learned the hard way not to eat the food that well-wishers bring for him. Although the treats are tempting and well-meant, he once had brownies spiked with a rather popular substance by someone who clearly spent some time on the naughty list.
“If you meet a good Santa … he has faith. They all do it for the same reason, to bring a little joy,” he said.
“It’s been rewarding. It’s hard sometimes and it can be frustrating. Being Santa has been enjoyable, but there are times when I have to give it to God and let him take care of it,” he said.