Updated: Nov 29, 2021
By Jasmine Willis
ATLANTA – For nearly 2,000 years the story of Saint Nicholas has captivated children and adults all over the world.
It all started with the birth of a man named Nicholas of Bari on March 15, 270. He came from wealthy parents who died when he was young. He is known as Saint Nick, Nicholas the Wonderworker and Santa Claus for generations. Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, repentant, thieves, children, unmarried, and brewers all over the world. He is a legendary gift-giver who led rise to his tradition of Santa Claus.
This local reporter sat down with our Santa Claus (Robert Harder) who shared his story of tradition, Christmas spirit, and why wearing the suit means so much to him.
“Saint Nick was born to wealthy parents in the Fourth Century. His parents died of the plague when he was very young. He would later become a Christian Bishop and travel over Persia, Greece and back to his birthplace of Myra,” Harder said. “He started a tradition of secret gift-giving to boys and girls leaving them toys and candy. There are so many stories of the kindness he would do for others. Once there was a father who couldn’t afford a dowery for his three daughters. In those times if you had no dowery your daughters would get forced into slavery when they reached a certain age. Saint Nick heard of the father’s hardship and left three bags of gold for each daughter’s dowery. This was how he saved them from being thrown in slavery. As a Bishop he saved three soldiers from being executed. He was always known for his good works.”
Harder said there are Santa Helpers all over the world who are given the special task of bringing the Santa Claus Spirit to others.
“Saint Nick didn’t need his wealth from his parents. He would give it away to those who needed it most,” he said. “I believe there is a little bit of Santa Claus in all of us. When we help our neighbors or say Merry Christmas to someone. When we offer love, hope, and help others in need we are being Santa Claus. This is really what Christmas is all about.”
Harder said not to ignore the Christmas spirit inside of you in these hard times. In the last couple of years people have really been suffering. It is more important now to be the Santa Claus in someone’s life.
Harder has a brand-new Santa Claus outfit from the talented Belinda Schuler at E.J. Cottrell Memorial Library. He showed it off along with some traditional Santa Claus gear. A reindeer pocket watch. A leather belt made by the talented Cherie Carter at Free Spirit Leather Shop. A fancy old fashioned Santa Claus hat from Turkey.
“I am going to all the local businesses to ask for donations. For the first time this year I am going to be donating a Christmas Tree to a family in need. I am going to be asking local businesses to donate to this cause. I want to make sure it comes with lights and decorations. It will be an artificial tree so they can use it every year,” he said. “The idea came from the Giving Tree at Four Square Church in Dansville. They have a tree with boys and girls tags and the ages on them. Any person can take one and buy presents for the child in need. I thought there are churches who give gifts and meals to the families in need, but they also need a Christmas Tree. I noticed at the festival in Canandaigua there is a lovely artificial Christmas Tree with lights. I challenge all of the Santa Helpers out there to embrace the Christmas Spirit and do the same. I want all of us to help those in need this Christmas.”
Harder has always felt a special place in his heart for Christmas. It was one of the holidays he cherished most growing up. He came from divorced parents, so he had to split his time with them on the holidays. He would go to his father’s side of the family with all the cousins and sled down the hill all night. Harder had so much fun drinking hot coco and playing with all of his cousins on Christmas. They would all gather to share a feast and tell stories around the fireplace. In his mind, the spirit surrounding this special holiday has diminished in recent times.
“I really miss those days. It was a big blessing to come from a big family. Very few families honor the Christmas traditions anymore. Many gather as an obligation now and not as a family tradition,” he said. “I think the entire season is about being thankful for the times you had with those you love.”
Harder is trying to bring it all back with the joy of Santa Claus and the Christmas Spirit.
He visits Olde Country Store (Dec. 4 and 5), E.J. Cottrell Memorial Library (Dec. 8 and Dec. 17), Dinky Doo Petting Zoo (Dec 10,11, and 12), and Shannon’s Barber Shop (Dec. 18), K’s Canine Training Services (Dec. 18).
Harder said there are plenty of stories on the sites he follows of Santa Claus changes lives. One story that stuck with him this year was of a father who was asked by his son if there really was a Santa Claus. He told his son that we all have a little Santa in us, and when you do something kind for your others and help your neighbor you are being Santa Claus. By giving his son gifts and seeing the joy in his heart feeling Santa Claus that is what made it all worth it to him.
“I don’t know where I am going to be every year. I don’t know who I am going to meet along the way. I like to know about Santa Claus history and traditions from all over the world. I can explain it to the children easier if I know how he is represented in different cultures,” he said. “The traditional Santa Claus wore a robe and carried a lantern on his staff to light the way. Sometimes he is on a horse. It came from Norway tradition to put him on a sleigh with reindeer. They raise reindeer over there,” he said. “They say we get our modern Santa Claus from Coca Cola ads of the old days. The fat and jolly Saint Nick with the long beard and red suit.”
Harder loves the children who come every year to see him. This is what it is all about when being a Santa Claus Helper. You get to see the same children and answer their questions. There are a few stories that stick out in his mind from his years wearing the red suit.
“I had a mother tell me once that her three-year-old was abused by her own father. She had a hard time around people. It broke my heart that this beautiful little girl went through all of that pain. I held her and hugged her. I told her how special she was. I told her she is still special no matter what. It has happened several times when I get little children like that little girl,” he said. “I hope what I have done helps these kids in some small way. When I was in the Bath VA Hospital a few years ago there was a moment I will never forget. I was being shown around by a male aid there. I was there as Santa Claus to help brighten up the spirits of the veterans. There was a young female veteran sitting all alone. When she saw me she jumped right up and hugged me so tight. She held onto me and cried. It broke my heart. I thanked her for her service and wished her a Merry Christmas. The male aid told me he had never seen that before, because this woman never talked to anyone. This is a very big reason why I do this.”
Harder loves being Santa Claus for the Greatest Generation when he visits them in the Bath Va Hospital or the nursing homes. They all come from a time when Santa Claus was a very big deal in the household. It means a lot to them and reminds them of their childhood to see him walk in with the red suit and jolly white beard.
“I love the idea of being Santa Claus. I have always loved being around kids. It is something positive and uplifting for me to do. I think I enjoy this more than they do. I love helping other people. I feel truly blessed to have done it all these years,” he said. “If you can’t believe in your heart that you are Santa Claus you shouldn’t do this. You have to put yourself in Santa Claus’ shoes and be able to relate to these kids. If you can’t embrace the Santa Claus spirit than don’t be a Santa Claus Helper. I never ask for anything other than to inspire the children. I just go wherever I am needed most.”
Some other Santa Claus Helpers around the country had similar stories to share. They all gather to inspire one another. One had a little girl who was in the hospital with childhood cancer. She only wanted to see Santa Claus. He came to visit her and she was overjoyed. He told her he wanted to see her when she was all grown up. So, as he prayed for the four-year-old he held her little hand. Two years later as he saw a long-blond-haired girl sit on his lap with a big smile she asked if he remembered her. She said I am all grown up now Santa Claus. You wanted to see me when I was all grown up. It was the same girl.
Another Santa Claus was called on to a little girl with cancer at a hospital. He got there just in time to have the toddler die in his arms. She died filled with peace since all she ever wanted was to see Santa Claus.
Harder said this is why the Santa Claus Helpers all over the world step into these shoes and don’t ignore the Santa Claus Spirit. It can literally save a life or change them forever. You can be the only Santa Claus someone ever sees. Harder added if he can change just one life with what he has done it will all be worth it.