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The holiday spirit: Clauses finds Christmas glow all year

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FRANK J. SCHULTZ
December 21, 2009
— If you’re a kid, stop reading this now. Go ask your parents if it’s OK. This is a story for grown-ups, and it might upset Santa and your parents if you read it.

If you’re one of those kids, put the paper down. Ask your parents to show it to you when you’re older. That’s the way life is. Sometimes, you have to wait. Thanks.


OK, here’s the story: Santa was in town last week. No, not the Santa at the mall. The mall Santa seems like a nice guy, but he is not allowed to speak to newspaper reporters, according to the photo company that runs the mall-Santa business.


The Santa Claus we’re talking about has a twinkle in his eye and a heart for kids. He comes complete with his Mrs. Claus.


This pair of North Pole-ians live in La Crosse and have been doing the Santa thing for eight years now, after they retired from lives in social work.


Dan and Bonnie Felten have visited Janesville twice now, meeting the Santa needs of the children at Wilson Elementary School.


Their tie to the school is a close one: Principal Becky Bicha is their daughter.


This reporter set out to talk to Santa, to find out if kids are asking for anything different this year. It seems a lot of folks are worried that kids feeling the effects of the economy might ask Santa for some very different things.


Indeed, the Wall Street Journal interviewed dozens of Santa’s helpers and found stories of kids who wanted nothing more than a pair of shoes or glasses so they could see what the teacher was writing on the board.


Dan and Bonnie heard this, too, from their professional association, the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas, which warned them that this might be a difficult year for kids.


The Feltens have heard nothing of the kind in Janesville or La Crosse. The Wilson kids were typical, asking for Barbies, electronics or electrically powered vehicles, they said.


Santa can’t always deliver what a child wants, of course.


“We were real careful to say, ‘Santa will try. He’ll do the best he can. And if he can’t, is it OK if he brings you a surprise?’” Bonnie said.


“We do our best to make children happy and (to say) Santa loves you,” Dan added.


They have a license plate that says “Santa C.” They donate their time to nursing homes and homeless shelters year-round. They appear at Special Olympics parties. They wear red even in the summer and carry candy canes.


Wherever they go, they see the light of Christmas blink on, even in the eyes of patients with dementia.


It’s a far cry from the emergency-room social work that Dan did, or Bonnie’s job, helping the mentally ill find housing.


The sadness and the occasional cruel death they saw eventually got to them, they said. After years of that, they couldn’t take it anymore.


“Then you retire and become Santa,” Dan said cheerily.


Maybe the Feltens are not the real Santa and Mrs. Claus. But if they’re not, they’re close to the Jolly Old Elf. Bonnie’s maiden name was Claus. And they can see the Christmas spirit in the children they meet.


“They really want to believe,” Bonnie said. “Hey, I believe. There is a spirit of Santa that’s real.”


And as for odd requests, the Feltens have heard their share. In La Crosse this year, a girl asked that her daddy have the best Christmas ever.


“What about you, honey?” they asked.


“No, just Daddy,” she said.


And there was a boy who told Santa he had quite enough and didn’t need any toys.


“I really pushed him on it, but no, he had plenty,” Dan said.


Oh, there was this one thing Santa and Mrs. Claus heard from several children this year. It startled them. They had never heard it before. And it came from children who seemed young to be thinking about such a thing.


“World peace,” the kids said.


Santa couldn’t promise peace on Earth. But he said that if everyone did what they were supposed to do, peace was possible.


“It starts with us,” he said.



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