Sometimes the best gifts come in the most unexpected places.

Mine came last week as I visited Santa Claus at Kringleville in Waterville.

He sat in his big chair beside a glowing fireplace, surrounded by sparkling Christmas trees and two golden reindeer, greeting children and asking them what they wanted for Christmas.

The kids asked for all sorts of things — choo-choo trains, bikes, Legos, snowboards, dolls and clothes — but it was the subtle messages Santa imparted to the children that caught my attention.

“Remember, we need to be kind to one another and have love in our hearts,” he told one little dark-haired girl perched on a red velvet footstool next to him. “Remember, Christmas is about love and the gift of love.”

I visited Kringleville mostly to find out what kids are most interested in this Christmas, but I came away with a whole new appreciation for who Santa is and what he represents.

For instance, he not only asked the children what they want for Christmas and whether they have been good little girls and boys, but he also gave them practical advice when they asked for electronic games: Make sure, he said, to do your share of chores around the house and take the time to play outside in the fresh air and sunshine.

“Don’t get so caught up in games that you forget to do other things,” he told three particularly inquisitive boys. “I have to muck out the reindeer stalls.”

Santa was busy. Dozens of kids were lined up outside his door waiting to see him, so I didn’t have much time to talk to him myself, but I asked if I could call him the next day. He said that would be fine.

I called promptly at 8 a.m., and kept my inquiries to a minimum, as I knew he had a busy week ahead. Has Santa received any unusual requests from children over the years?

He answered without hesitation.

“I had a young man about five years ago who was definitely at the age where he was beginning not to believe in Santa and was probably holding on to some magic, but he was also very, very conflicted,” he replied.

Careful not to let his mother hear his conversation, the boy approached Santa.

“He came up to me and he said, ‘I’m different. My family isn’t going to love me,'” Santa recalled. “He was trying to come out to his family and he said he wanted a pair of red shoes — not boys’ shoes, but girls’ shoes. I said, ‘No matter what you are, I love you.'”

Santa said he asked Mrs. Claus to get the family’s mailing address, which she did, and he went out and found a pair of red shoes, boxed them up with a message that said “Do Not Open Until Christmas,” and mailed it off, inserting in the package a letter for the boy’s parents.

After Christmas that year, as Santa was packing things up at Kringleville, there came a knock on his workshop door. It was the boy’s mother, asking to speak to Santa.

“Of course, I thought, ‘Here it comes. She’ll be upset.’ Instead, she handed me a card and left.

“I opened the card. It said, ‘Thank you for saving my family.'”

Santa said that was the most unusual encounter he has ever had with a family at Christmas — and the most memorable.

“It will stay with me forever, and I get teary-eyed and choked up when I think of it. You don’t realize who you touch and how you touch them, but you do what you can.”

Santa wants kids to know that we all have to treat each other with love and compassion — not just at Christmas, but all year long, he said.

“I want them to know Christmas is not about the gifts, but about the people we spend time with and share our lives with and love. I always try to let them know that love was the first gift and it was given at Christmastime.”

I thanked Santa for his time and said goodbye, but not before he told me how blessed he feels to be able to help influence the lives of thousands of children who visit him each year:

“I am not about creating a moment in time. I am about creating a lifetime memory. The beauty of it is, I remember from year to year these faces and how much they’ve grown and how much they’ve changed and when they start losing their magic a little bit. There may come a day when they stop believing in me, but I will always believe in them.”

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter more than 26 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]

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