I quit believing in Santa Claus when he didn’t bring me the Star Wars Millennium Falcon Playset. Fast forward a few decades to when I’m working as a kindergarten teacher in Korea. I taught my students how to write a Christmas list in English and how much of a Christmas bonus Casey Teacher would like.
I loved my kinder kids, but I only worked with them a few hours a week. Teaching 6-year-old children 40-plus hours a week sounds way harder than being a Navy SEAL.
On a day off in December, my boss called me. “Casey, I really need you at work.” I grunted negatively. Then she said, “I need somebody to be Santa.”
“What?” I agreed immediately without thinking how I’d go about being jolly, fat and bearded. Well, I’m all of those things, just not enough to be Father Christmas.
She picked me up in her personal car — which meant this was an emergency. She turned around and handed me a paper bag, then drove to our destination. I looked inside with a scrunched-up face.
“Is this the costume? Or did one of the students make this? It’s, like, I don’t know. Really crummy. The beard looks like it’s made out of a piece of paper with some cotton balls glued on.”
“We don’t have enough time to get you a better costume. Put it on. You’re going all over town, and we’re already behind.”
“You’re kidding me, right? I signed up to be Santa, not deliver gifts all around Seoul.”
“No time. Put the costume on. You’ve got to ‘Ho ho ho’ and call yourself Santa Hall-oh-buh-jee. That means ‘Santa Grandfather.’ You don’t have to speak Korean or even listen to the kids, just smile, tell them to study and laugh. OK?”
I armored myself with a red coat and pants that may have been a sleeping bag with legs. The white beard barely covered half my face. The hat was so dingy a teacher replaced it with one of hers.
Then I stepped inside the classroom. Jaws dropped. Kids went silent, sat straighter and stared at me. Even the teachers lost a few breaths. I did all of the same things.
Koreans know Santa from movies and TV, but there aren’t shopping mall Santas. The only time I saw a Santa was when my kindergarten’s bus driver put on a beard — and he was marvelous at it.
These Korean kindergartners never imagined seeing a white Santa Grandfather. They believed I was the real Santa Grandfather. (They also thought my parents were Santa Grandfather and Santa Grandmother when they caught us Skyping. Little twerps have short memories.)
I wasn’t just Jolly Old Saint Nick, but also a guidance counselor, confessor, social worker and dream come true. Munchkins asked me what they should do with their lives, told me about not doing their homework, told me they wanted to see their parents more and asked if I could let them meet Rudolph, Iron Man or Elsa. Nobody cried, screamed, bit me or peed on me. Winning.
My sleigh traveled to four schools. The funniest thing happened at my regular kindergarten — I needed to wear sunglasses so they wouldn’t find out Santa Grandfather was actually Casey Teacher.
Every student and teacher needed snapshots, so I took hundreds. I honestly can’t say who enjoyed the day more: them or me. My mini-minions told me all about meeting Santa Grandfather the next day. I beamed and told them I was jealous.
I made a hundred bucks or so. More important was brightening a cold December day for hundreds of Santa’s helpers. These children gave me a memory so sweet, funny and adorable that I wish I could be in Korea right now doing the same thing — all while wearing sunglasses. Because that looked cool. And I’d probably shed tears of holiday joy.