A Santa Who Gives More Than Presents
You never know whose life you’ll change when you put on that Santa Claus suit.
At least, that’s the takeaway from Doug Hornberger, 74, who’s been portraying Santa since 2006, starting with a stint at the Walmart in Georgetown, Del. He had been working as a store associate when he was asked to pick up the important duties. In the years since, it’s become quite the passion.
“Playing Santa Claus is a great joy,” he said. “You never promise them anything, because you don’t know the situation at home. Did this guy just lose his job? Are they struggling to put food on the table? Be general. Say, ‘I’ll do what I can.’ You never know what happens, if they take your advice or they don’t. Sometimes it’s real funny, and other times, it’s rather heavy.”
Once, a woman and her three children at Walmart approached Santa Doug in tears. “I haven’t been able to do this in five years,” she told him. “I just got out of jail.”
“Santa said, why don’t you kids take grandma over there and show her the toys you want?” Doug recalled. “I pulled aside the mother and said, ‘Why?’ She said ‘drugs.’ I said, ‘The next time you think about doing drugs, go in the bathroom, look over the sink. Look at the person in the mirror. Ask that person, are these drugs more important than my kids?’”
In other situations at the store, Santa Doug stepped in to help, like when he learned about a little girl getting beat every day when she came home from school by her own brother and referred the case to authorities. There was the hungry little girl whom Santa Doug connected with a local church, in the hopes that parishioners might step up with food donations.
And then there was the young woman who confided in Santa Doug that she feared her mother was suicidal and didn’t know where to turn.
“It was a Sunday; I’ll never forget,” he said. “I told her, ‘You need to call in sick on Monday. You need to call the State of Delaware; they have a helpline. If you call and tell them your mother has problems, they’ll get her immediately into counseling.’ And they did.”
His favorite story has a happy ending. A friend once confided in Santa Doug about a homeless mother and daughter she’d taken in, who had been living out of their car, and that the little girl wasn't going to have a Christmas.
“So I went over to see them Christmas Eve as Santa and I told them, ‘When you get up tomorrow, you’re going to have a Christmas you’ll always remember.’ I called some friends. I said, ‘Here’s where she’s living, what can we do?’ We literally covered the living-room floor with toys. She got a bicycle; she got a doll she wanted.”
Doug said the young girl is now an adult, working for the Dagsboro Fire Company. “Every time she sees me, she gives me a big hug, and she says, ‘There’s the Santa who gave me the best Christmas ever.’”
He doesn’t work for Walmart anymore, but instead — in a wonderful Santa-related coincidence — has his own business, which sells fireplaces. Who’s a better chimney expert than Santa? Doug also gets to portray St. Nick for the town of Bethany Beach at some municipal events. Last year in Bethany, for their tree-lighting ceremony, he met a young girl of about 6 years old. The girl presented Santa Doug with a wish list.
“It looked like about $35,000 worth of stuff,” he said, still incredulous at the memory. “I looked up at Mom and said, ‘Good luck!’ This girl wanted everything — big-screen TV, the works. I started to put the list in my bag and the girl said, ‘Wait, you can’t take it. I want to check it off when I get it for Christmas.’”
Sometimes, as a conversation starter, Santa Doug will ask the kids in his lap to tell him what’s under their bed. A little boy once answered: “a Pepsi-Cola and a cheese sandwich.”