It all happened one Thanksgiving weekend back in the 1980s after Richard Wood watched Miracle on 34th Street (as is his family’s Thanksgiving tradition). The South Burlington native latched on to what Alfred said in the movie: “Of all the ‘isms’ the worst of them is commercialism!”
On a lark, with the intention of taking on the “black” in Black Friday, Wood put on a Santa hat and headed out to the local shopping centers.
“As I wandered about,” Wood recalled, “I noticed people tended to grow smiles when they saw the hat. I felt a palpable change in the atmosphere wherever I went that day.”
The following year the South Burlington firefighter thought he’d try it again, and it wasn’t long before a tradition was born.
“I definitely sensed that it was helping to make people’s days a little brighter,” Wood said.
In the first years, his hair was dark and he had no beard. After leaving the fire service in 1994 and moving to Colchester with his wife and three children, Wood was able to let his beard grow out. When Thanksgiving rolled around that year he popped on his hat, shaped his dark brown beard and found that people had even more of a response to his “Jolly Holiday” look. Eventually Wood added a red jacket to his well-worn Santa-hat and called himself “street ready.”
“It probably isn’t street performing in the true sense, rather it is more like donning the persona of Santa Claus for the season,” Wood said.
By the mid-2000s, Wood began making the effort to do intentional outreach by handing out candy canes and buying people in uniform lunch. As his hair and beard got lighter, folks were not only smiling more when they saw him, they started calling him “Santa,” waving and even stopping him just to chat.
“It’s apparent that ‘Santa’ makes people feel safe and willing to share their life story with almost no prompting from me,” Wood said. “That is when I began to understand that everyone has a life story to tell and everyone’s life has meaning and purpose.”
Wood has had what he considers the fortunate experience of surviving four heart attacks over the past 14 years.
“A person obviously cannot go through such events without considering their own priorities and purpose on this hunk of dirt called earth,” he said. “I pretty much came to the conclusion that the only real impact we have is that which comes from helping others find hope, reason and purpose in their own lives and helping them step up and out to help others.
“When I become Santa I make it my everyday walk. I am always in character and I am simply spreading Christmas love. I am also fulfilling part of my life purpose, which is reminding folks of the three parts of their humanity: the physical, the mental and the spiritual.
“Amazing things happen when people remember to see their lives supported by those three equally balanced and sturdy legs; they discover hope, joy and purpose in their lives.”
An ISA Board Certified Master Arborist by trade since 1993, Wood tries to bring that message through Santa Remembers — a charitable organization he founded that helps people discover that their lives, and especially their life stories, have a greater purpose.
“Playing Santa and providing for the various outreaches have grown beyond what I can pay for out of my own pocket,” said Wood. Aside from covering the necessary overhead, Santa Remembers raises funds to support outreach efforts that include:
• Buying lunch/dinner for men and women who wear any uniform, whether military, fire, emergency medical services, or law enforcement.
• Joining with groups who sponsor families that otherwise would not be able to afford a full Christmas celebration.
• Collecting silver coins, which are randomly dropped into collection kettles and change collection boxes.
Wood also offers his Santa-services for hire, with proceeds benefiting Santa Remembers.
“Our for-hire events run the gamut from small toddler parties in someone’s home to full blown mega-parties at banquet facilities,” Wood explained. “Some are as simple as waving to children in their homes while Santa stands in the driveway. Others are more complex with Santa making his entrance in a horse drawn sleigh or even a helicopter.
“Most requests are for home and office parties, Christmas tree inspections, I-spy-Santa-in-the-driveway visits and the extra-special Christmas Eve visit.”
This year Santa Remembers is also working with a local portrait photographer, offering families the opportunity to have holiday portraits taken with Santa.
“Our ultimate goal, is to be able to fund more of our current outreach efforts and to make them available all year ’round,” said Wood.
In the future, Santa Remembers hopes to bring a little bit of “home” to deployed National Guard members wherever they happen to be stationed.
Other charity events Wood participates in include:
• Operation Fire-Cuffs — a Burlington Fire Department, Vermont State Police and Morrisville Police event that brings Santa and gifts to the Vermont Children’s Hospital at Fletcher Allen Health Care.
• Lunch with Santa — a meal for the Colchester Volunteer Fire Company. “They are my hometown fire company and since I’m not able to be a firefighter anymore it is my way of contributing to their organization.”
• Special hospital visits.
“We can all make a difference in the lives of the folks right next to us,” Wood said, encouraging everyone to “be a friend to people.”
“I know it is impossible to make people happy, but it is well within our abilities to help them see things in a better light,” Wood said. “That is what my playing Santa is all about!”
Editor’s note: For more on Rick Woods’ charity visit www.santaremembers.org.