A child pauses to choose her words carefully while talking to Santa at the Highway Family Restaurant in Bushnell. (Photo by Shannon L. Price)

Bushnell, Illinois, where I live, is a town of about 3,000 in the west central part of the state, not too far from the Mississippi River. For whatever reason, Santa Claus did not come to town last year. Apparently, no one volunteered. Anyhow, no one asked me.

This year has been different. Way different. We not only have Santa Claus, we’ve had “25 Days of Christmas” events and a festive look all over town. Thanks to Jody Patrick, who recently retired here to be closer to relatives, her husband Kevin, and the Bushnell Citizen’s Coalition, the community-wide holiday season is back.

Jody was already working on putting a committee together last fall to help build our town’s neglected assets. Christmas was coming, and why not do something to restore Old St. Nick to his rightful place in town? Seemed like a good project to tackle, low-hanging fruit, so to speak.

It all started out simply. My wife, Shannon L. Price, posed a fairly simple question to me after the group’s first meeting around Halloween: “How would you like to be Santa Claus this year?” Pretty straightforward. Sure. I’ve been wanting to do that for years.

The original idea was to have Santa appear a few times around town. It didn’t stay simple for long, mainly because Jody does not comprehend the idea of low-hanging fruit. A suggestion from Shannon that we might think about 25 Days of Christmas next year turned into 25 Days of Christmas this year.

A Santa skeptic challenges St. Nick about the elf's existence. (Photo by Shannon L. Price)
A Santa skeptic challenges St. Nick about the elf’s existence. (Photo by Shannon L. Price)

So, our retail businesses, civic groups, churches, and the school kids have been participating. Things have been kind of busy for Santa. (Don’t tell the children, we actually have two jolly elves, and I am deeply privileged to be one of them.)

Events were scheduled daily, including having Santa arrive in a horse-drawn carriage on December 6. Decorations were hauled out of storage, and the Santa House was moved back to its rightful place near the old train depot, where high school students decorated it.

During the week of December 13, Santa had appearances at the hardware store, pharmacy, and elementary school. (He did a totally clumsy Whip/Nae Nae, but felt like a rock star as the kids screamed, danced, and cheered.)

December 19 turned out to be a full day. Santa was booked (by his own personal request) at our local diner that afternoon. In a wonderful form of civic self-combustion, the volunteer fire department decided to have a parade that night. First, it was just going to be emergency equipment – you know, bright flashing lights and all that. But others signed on, and, within two or three weeks, the parade grew to include more than 30 units with Santa as grand marshal.

The night for the firefighters’ parade was perfect, clear with a waxing moon high in the sky, little wind, and temperature just above freezing. I gasped as I turned the corner near the high school and saw the line of lighted vehicles stretching from the corner back to the school parking lot about 100 yards away.

Even as I was walking to the school, I began to hear cries of “Santa!” The cries still ring in memory as I think about the slow drive through town past people in their yards, knotted under the streetlights at corners, and huddled by their front doors and in their cars along the route. I have no idea how many people were there, but it had to be at least 400 or 500, and I am trying to be conservative. Our downtown was full of people.

After the parade, I spent an hour at our Santa House, listening to the hopes and dreams of at least 60 children and meeting their parents. Including visits over last week, I think I must have met and talked to more than 100 kids. I’ve heard a lot.

A Christmas miracle in its own right, the Bushnell Christmas parade grew from an impromptu event to a 30-unit holiday display. (Photo by Jody Patrick)
A Christmas miracle in its own right, the Bushnell Christmas parade grew from an impromptu event to a 30-unit holiday display. (Photo by Jody Patrick)

Some kids have been very practical, saying they want new shoes or boots. Others want simpler gifts, while big ticket items are popular with some. Perhaps the craziest request was for something from Victoria’s Secret. Never saw that one coming.

Many kids, especially the younger boys, are shy. Some kids are skeptical, some quietly so, but I had one delightful verbal duel. The boy questioned everything about Santa. I can always hope he will become an adult Santa disciple when he works through his doubts.

The memory that won’t ever go away? A little girl, sitting on my lap with her brother, whispering in my ear that she hoped her parents—both were there—would both get back together again. All I could do, trying not to cry, was look up at them and say loud enough for them to hear: “I think that is up to them.”

A bit of reflection suggests Santa is powerful, really powerful. Playing Santa can be one of those transformative—magical is a better word for it—life events. I never stopped believing in Santa Claus, at least as an idea of goodness. Now, putting on the old man’s suit is an act of kindly, pacifist assertiveness in a world that desperately needs and wants tidings of comfort and joy. I don’t really have to play a character, other than having a “Ho! Ho! Ho!” modulated to fit the setting of a single child or a room full of children, or for that matter, adults in a senior citizens’ center. Quiet joy and a smile are contagious.

In a seemingly mad world, sharing the giving spirit of St. Nicholas becomes all the more important. It’s not only for the children. Many older folks want a little bit of Santa in their lives, too. Here is a bright memory brought back to the now in the darkness of the short days of winter and a world torn by fear and violence.

Whatever the downside of aging, especially the aches and pains, I have ready assets to share with my community during the holiday season: a white beard, much of my hair, and a deep-seated yearning to impart the empathetic spirit of a fourth-century bishop from Asia Minor who is remembered for helping the poor and offering hope to others.

Maybe, just maybe, this is the best life has to offer.

I’ll take it.

I’ll give it back.

Timothy Collins is assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone. He is the proprietor of Then and Now Media and author of Sandbag, a Christmas short story of friendship and hope.

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