Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, and he lives in Cedaredge! It's kind of a secret -- not a lot of people know that the REAL Santa does indeed live in little Cedaredge.
Santa has a pretty important job, but, honestly, he's only busy a few weeks out of the year, since the elves do most of the work getting ready for Christmas. So Santa needed something else to occupy his time, when he wasn't checking his list or delivering gifts or visiting with children. He applied for a job in Cedaredge, and, a little over a year ago, he moved here to take that job. Now remember, the identity of Santa is a secret -- can you imagine if everyone in the world knew Santa really lived in Cedaredge? The poor man would have no peace! So, while he's in Cedaredge, he goes by the name Joe Agne, and his other job is as the pastor of the Cedaredge Community United Methodist Church. And now that Christmas is over, Santa had a few hours to sit down and share his story.
Santa began his career when he was in college, in the mid-1960s. Santa didn't always think he was going to be Santa, so he went to school to study English and theater. And because even Santa has bills to pay, he decided he needed a part-time job. As these things happen, a friend of a friend hired him to play a mall Santa at Grant's Square in Hinsdale, Ill., during the Christmas season. Santa chuckles when he talks about his first time on the job. Hinsdale was a fairly affluent place, and he remembers children walking in with lists already written out. But there were a few kids who skipped the list-making. "I still remember one child who told me, I want a vacuum cleaner for Christmas. My mom needs one," he said. And another request, one he'd hear many times over the years: "What I want most for Christmas is for my Mom and Dad to stay together."
"To be Santa is to hear from children what hairdressers and bartenders hear from adults," Joe said. "I have a lot of kids who know their parents aren't well, and they'll ask for their mommy to get better. Or kids who tell me what they most want for Christmas is for their daddy to get a job.
"The most important thing is being present," he said. "As Santa, I try to be present so that those kids know someone heard what was coming from deep inside them. I can't determine whether Mom is going to get well, or if Dad is going to get a job, or even what toys they're going to get on Christmas morning, but they sure do know, I hope, that when we're done talking, that someone cared enough to listen."
And while those conversations are very difficult, and all too frequent, Santa sees a silver lining. "For a child to say something like that, it's so countercultural," he said. These are not kids who show up with pre-written lists, kids who expect to get all of the latest tech toys and gadgets. "These are kids where compassion is still at the top," he said. Though he's best known for delivering Christmas wishes, which often translates to stuff, this Santa doesn't really bother with the materialism of Christmas. That's why the very first question he always asks kids is, "What does your mom want for Christmas?" followed by, "And what does your best friend want for Christmas?"
"I do that to uncover the compassion that's deep inside all kids," Santa said. "Some kids look at me like, 'Santa, you're blowing this whole deal! What do you mean, what does my mom want for Christmas?!' " But, the question has its intended effect -- it makes kids stop and think, just for a second, about someone else in the hustle and bustle of the Christmas season. "God creates everybody with lots of compassion within them. When the compassion of kids is evident, that's really important to me," he said.
Santa also has no time for the naughty-or-nice debate. "I tell kids that I've checked my computer, and the computer says that they've been good all year," he explained. Moreover, he tells kids that his computer reports that all kids across the world have been good this year. "Kids love that," he said. "I like the part of Santa that is grace. It's not because kids have earned gifts, but gifts just come. I like that. I don't like Santa Claus to be used as leverage to make kids be good."
Joe dislikes the song "Santa Claus is Coming To Town" for the same reason. "That's a stand-in for God," Joe said about the song. "Santa Claus is watching you. God is watching you. Don't be bad because Santa will get you. God will get you. That's awful. It's awful theology and it's awful for Santa."
The theology of grace is important in both his portrayal of Santa and in his ministry. Grace -- the kind of grace that defines love freely given -- is something both Santa and Joe believe in deeply and wholly. Santa's grace extends to gifts under a tree on Christmas morning; faith explains that we're saved simply because of God's love. "What's essential? It's the new commandment of Jesus to love God, to love your neighbor -- that's what's essential: to love," Joe said.
"To me, the important church holidays are Christmas and Easter," Santa Joe said. "Christmas is when love is born. Love is born into the world, every year. And then what happened was that the Roman government was so threatened by love that they decided to kill love. The Easter story is that the tomb could not contain love. Love got out! Love is continually born into our lives and into the life of the world. Many have tried to contain love, to kill love, to constrain love. It's not going to work. It's never going to work. Love is too strong. Love is too powerful. In the long run, love always wins."
Wishing you all much love in the year to come. Merry Christmas!