Early on Christmas morning 2015, at the QEII Health Sciences Centre, Lee Rodgers steps onto the elevator. A large red sack, holding sleigh bells and candy canes, is slung over one shoulder. His suit and hat are bright red with a trim of white fur. He’s wearing a black belt with a golden buckle, black boots, and a long, flowing white fake beard and gold-rimmed glasses. He’s dressing up as Santa Claus to visit the adult patients in the cardiovascular surgery unit. They could use a dose of Christmas cheer.
A young boy approaches the elevator door, clutching his mother’s hand. He sees Santa and freezes. He stares, awe-struck at the sight of the fabled figurehead of Christmas.
“Hi! Merry Christmas!” Lee says with a friendly smile, moving to the side of the elevator to make room. The sleigh bells in his sack jingle when he moves (it adds an extra layer of magic to the costume). The woman coaxes the boy onto the elevator, and Lee crouches down to the kid’s eye level. It’s just the three of them.
“Were you a good boy this year?”
“Are you having a good Christmas?”
“Have you had a chance to open any gifts so far this morning?”
Lee knows the boy could be visiting someone with a terminal illness, or someone recovering from a dangerous operation. This is probably a tough Christmas. Still, at least the boy will have the memory of meeting Santa Claus in the elevator. The doors slide open. Before saying goodbye, Lee reaches into his sack and hands him a candy cane.
In the cardiovascular surgery unit, Lee meets up with his wife, Megan. She usually dresses up as the Mrs. Claus to his Santa, but today she’s the real clerk in charge of administration and visiting in cardiovascular surgery. She hands him a stack of Christmas cards – each intended for one of the patients – and they begin to make their way around the ward. They joke and laugh with some, and listen to stories from others about Christmases long ago.
In one room, an elderly woman sits by herself in a large reclining chair that makes her tiny, frail body look even tinier. She’s holding a hot drink in a small Styrofoam cup, and gazing out the window. It isn’t particularly cold outside, but the room feels chilly. Her family is supposed to come later, but for now she’s all alone.
The sound of sleigh bells breaks the eerie silence, and then she hears him say her name. She turns, sees who it is, her eyes light up, and her slack expression breaks into a bright smile. Lee kneels down beside her and holds her hand.
“I just wanted to wish you a very Merry Christmas,” he says. He gives her a card and a candy cane.
Lee knows that no one likes to wake up Christmas morning in a hospital. Family Christmas traditions can seem like they’ll last forever but children grow up, parents get older, and people get sick. A visit from Santa Claus can awaken memories of happier times.
At home with the Rodgers
It’s one of the first truly cold nights in November. Winter feels imminent. In a cozy, unassuming home in Spryfield, Lee and Megan are dressing up as Santa and Mrs. Claus. Tonight, they’re reading a picture book for children over Facebook Live. Their Labrador-German Shepherd-Husky dog, Lexi, although at first confused, has gotten used to them dressing up as Santa and Mrs. Claus. They’ve been doing it for six years, after all. Megan puts Lexi in another room – she has interrupted live streams before. Lee jokes they should incorporate her into the act – they can call her Peppermint.
Viewers flood in – kids are watching from Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Ontario, Alberta, and beyond. On screen are two empty chairs, draped in red and green blankets. This evening’s selection – How to Catch an Elf – is on a table in the middle. In the background is a crackling fire with stockings hanging from the mantle.
Kids won’t notice the background is a printed scrim Megan ordered for $30 off Amazon. They can’t see Lee’s desktop computer just off screen, playing fireplace sound effects. They also can’t see the large bag of dog food on the floor, the ironing board hung on the door, Lee’s diploma for Radio and Television Arts on the wall, or the tiny souvenir bottle of sand from the Cayman Islands on a bookshelf. Lee’s office doubles as the North Pole.
Before they see him, kids hear Santa’s bells. Next, his signature laugh: “Ho ho ho…” Lee doesn’t purposefully change his voice when he plays Santa. He doesn’t want to come off as fake. Still, there is something distinctly more jolly about him when he puts on the big white beard. Also, he’s short, chubby, and has a good laugh. Megan believes Lee’s Santa is just a heightened version of himself; this is the secret to his success.
When story time is over Lee takes off his hat and beard but leaves on his Santa suit. Megan changes out of her dress, putting on a simple black tank top and pants. In some ways, Lee and Megan are not a typical Santa and Mrs. Claus. For one thing, they are relatively young (Lee is 39, and Megan 33). Lee is a producer and production manager for Hot Country 103.5 and Jewel 105, a soft adult contemporary radio station in Halifax. In summer he moonlights as DJ LeeMix. Megan is now a unit clerk at a Nova Scotia Health blood collection centre (the hours are better than at the cardiovascular surgery unit). Her job isn’t the most exciting, but the work is steady and pays well – which is especially important this year.
Lee tried the suit on for the first time in 2014, when visiting a family friend who was retiring from the Santa business. On Christmas Eve that year, he dressed up as Santa and fooled some kids (nieces and nephews) for the first time. Now, Lee and Megan are professionals. From Remembrance Day until New Year’s Eve, they do in-home visits, corporate events, and community gatherings. Lee is also Santa Claus in the Spryfield Santa Claus Parade.
Over the past six years, the Clauses have rubbed off on the Rodgers. Lee was an only child and didn’t interact with many kids. Now he knows how to relate to them, get down on their level. Megan has always been good with kids, but she’s noticed changes in herself, too. For one thing, she swears less. Lee says that once they put on the costumes, they begin to embody the characters.
A very pandemic Christmas
This is not the first time a pandemic has caused problems for Santa Claus. In 1918, at the height of the Spanish Flu pandemic, Santa Clause visited Gering, Nebraska. He was met at the train station by a horde of excited children, but didn’t realize the large crowd was in violation of local gathering restrictions. The Chief of Police showed up and arrested Santa, stripping him of his beard in front of the horrified children. In a show of Christmas cheer (or perhaps on the off-chance that the real Santa Claus was watching), the children gathered their dimes, nickels, and pennies to pay Santa’s fine.
This year the Rodgers are dressing up as Santa and Mrs. Claus with public health restrictions in mind. Lee and Megan are avoiding the usual crowded community and corporate events, and have instead booked socially-distanced and masked in-home visits. They’re also doing Zoom calls. The annual Santa Claus Parade has been cancelled, but the Spryfield Business Commission plans to present an adapted “Community Cruise with Santa.” The idea is to drive through individual neighbourhoods, instead of gathering in a central location, so people can stay in their bubbles.
“2020 has been such a dumpster fire,” says Lee. Whether in person or virtually, it’s important to reach out to each other. He believes, more than ever, that people need to connect.
Seeing is believing
It’s a sunny, warm Saturday in mid-November, and Lee and Megan are driving to their first house visit of the season. They go too far and stop in a driveway to turn around. A woman stands outside on her porch, wearing a housecoat, her hair up in a bun. She’s smoking a cigarette with one hand and drinking from a mug of coffee in the other. Her husband is sitting next to her, tinkering with something on a work bench. She sees who’s in the car.
“Oh my god! It’s Santa!” she yells into the house behind her. “Kids! Kids! Kids!” The kids come out, dumbfounded. Their mom is the most excited.
“Hi! Merry Christmas!” Lee waves out the window. They pull out of the driveway and continue on. They always park a short distance away from the house they’re visiting. Santa is supposed to drive a sleigh pulled by reindeer after all, not a white Mazda. Walking to the house they wave to people putting up Christmas lights, going for walks, and taking advantage of one of the last warm days before the cold and wet Atlantic winter begins in earnest.
Lee and Megan love getting reactions from strangers. They often stop at a Tim Hortons drive-thru just to surprise the employees, or wave to people stopped at red lights. Earlier that day, they stopped next to a woman and her teenage son. The teen was wearing earbuds and slouching in the passenger seat. His mom pointed to Santa and Mrs. Claus, and the kid grinned, giving a begrudging wave. Lee says this small event could have helped them connect.
Arriving at a Clayton Park duplex they climb the steps to the porch, where the child’s parents have left a gift. Lee puts the gift in his red sack and rings the doorbell. An eager five-year-old boy in a Christmas sweater answers. His name is Liam and he’s all smiles.
Liam’s excitement is refreshing in a year with so little in-person contact. The first thing he does is give Santa a big hug. Lee and Megan are both wearing masks, but that doesn’t seem to faze the boy. He leads them to an open living room with two couches, a small TV, and a lit artificial Christmas tree in the front window. Next to the tree, covered in a red blanket, is a special chair for Santa. Liam’s parents, Char and Robert, sit on the other side of the bright yellow and red room. Char is snapping photos. Liam gets on Lee’s lap and peppers him with questions: “Why do you have such a long beard? Where are your reindeer? How did you get here?”
A 2011 study in the Journal of Cognition and Development found that 83% of American five-year-olds believe in Santa. An international survey by a professor at the University of Exeter in 2018 showed that eight is the average age when children stop believing.
Lee and Megan are committed to keeping belief in Santa alive. When kids ask detailed questions, they give vague answers to avoid ruining the magic. They both remember when they found out the grim truth about Santa. Megan found a gift from Santa Claus before Christmas day, and her mom came clean. Lee’s mom was washing the dishes when he told her he had heard rumours at school. He saw her heart break a little as she admitted Santa wasn’t real. She was saying goodbye to a piece of his childhood.
Lee insists he’s never stopped believing in Santa Claus. The spirit of Santa is goodness and kindness and love. Santa is in the childhood memories you carry with you. He’s in your family Christmas traditions. Every year on Christmas Eve, Lee still looks up at the sky. He doesn’t care if you make fun of him.
Liam asks if Santa has brought any presents. Lee gives him the gift he put in his sack earlier: a series of twelve books. Liam is learning how to read. He asks Santa to read one of the books, but Lee’s glasses have fogged up because of his mask.
“How about Mrs. Claus reads it?” he asks.
Liam is significantly less excited by this prospect, but he agrees. Soon after Megan begins to read he becomes disinterested, and returns to the main attraction – Santa. In this way, Liam is a bit of an outlier. Although Santa Claus is the figurehead for the secular side of Christmas, in Lee’s experience children usually go to Megan first.
Santa Claus is an imposing figure. His long white beard and moustache obscure his face, his suit is unnaturally bright, he’s large and he’s loud. Mrs. Claus doesn’t have the same intimidating features, and Megan has a motherly warmth that children are drawn to. Over the years, Lee has learned to tone down his boisterous energy when meeting timid children. Still, they often tell Mrs. Claus what they want for Christmas, and get her to pass the message on to Santa. He’s done events without her, but she’s an equal partner in the Santa biz. If Megan ever decides she wants to stop, Lee probably will too.
Despite how excited they are to see Santa at first, after a while many children grow disinterested or become distracted by new toys. Liam, though, is a Santa devotee. He shows them his outdoor swing set, and gets Lee to read him another book. He shows off his favourite Christmas ornament (“Liam’s First Christmas – 2016”). Liam uses Santa’s sleigh bells to lead a singalong of Jingle Bells.”
When it’s time to leave, Lee tells Liam to make sure he’s in bed early on Christmas Eve. Liam asks what kind of cookies Santa likes. Lee tells him chocolate chip or gingerbread cookies will be perfect.
Cheer and solace
Two days later, Nova Scotia announces eleven new cases of COVID-19. Newfoundland and Labrador and P.E.I. officially pull out of the Atlantic Bubble. A day later in Nova Scotia there are thirty-seven cases, the largest single day increase since April. New restrictions are announced for Halifax, including the closure of bars, restaurants and fitness facilities, and a gathering limit of five people. Lee begins calling clients to cancel in-home Santa visits.
He is working in his home office when he gets a text from Gina Gray, the co-chair of the Spryfield Santa Claus Parade: “Hey – can you call me?” Due to the new restrictions, the Community Cruise with Santa has been cancelled. The news isn’t unexpected, but it’s still disappointing. The longest-running Santa Claus parade east of Montreal likely will not happen in any capacity this year.
It’s going to be a long winter. The pandemic has been wearing us all down for months. Yes, Santa Claus still brings Christmas cheer, but this year he’s also bringing solace.
During a recent Zoom visit, a child lamented that he can’t go skating with friends. “This will not last forever,” said Lee. “You will go skating again.”
Lee says we need to have the same attitude towards our holiday rituals. This Christmas, we will remain distant from one another. We will cancel gatherings and change traditions to keep each other safe. But hope is on the horizon.
An appointment in August
In August 2020, Megan is lying on a bed in a dark hospital room, her legs in stirrups. Other than the doctor and nurse, she’s alone. A glow lights up her face and the room as she points her phone at the ultrasound machine so that Lee can see.
At this time, Nova Scotia COVID-19 restrictions don’t allow expectant mothers to bring someone along to appointments. Instead, she is talking to Lee on a video call. She had been feeling sick for the past month, and is about to find out why.
They have been trying to have a baby for five years. Not long after getting married, the couple consulted with a fertility doctor. She gave them medication after medication; nothing worked. The fertility doctor eventually referred them to Atlantic Assisted Reproductive Therapies. The clinic said that IVF treatment was the way to go. The treatment would cost $20,000. Fortunately, the couple had a network of friends, family, and even strangers who fundraised and donated; they eventually raised enough to begin the treatment.
Lee is sitting in the waiting room outside the doctor’s office, a reception desk on one side, patients on the other, wireless headphones in, concentrating on the image on his phone. He can’t see any recognizable shape in the blurry grey image on the ultrasound.
“Oh!” gasps the doctor, looking at the nurse. He says something else, and Lee can’t quite believe his ears. His palms start to sweat.
“WHAT?” Lee yells. “WHAT DID HE JUST SAY?”
“He said triplets,” Megan says softly. She’s terrified. She’s worried. She’s in shock. She’s excited.
“That’s why you’ve been so sick,” says the doctor.
“No shit,” Megan says.
The ride home is silent. Awkward, even. They’re both lost in their own thoughts. They can barely afford this. There could be complications with the pregnancy. Three kids at once? It’s gonna be nuts.
“Are we ready for this?” Lee asks.
“Yeah,” Megan says. “I guess we are.”
The children of Santa Claus, two boys and a girl, are due in March. Just before the end of a long winter.
About the author
Darrell Roberts is a student journalist from St. John's. He enjoys reading and writing about the latest in culture and politics.