Ed Butchart, a.k.a. Santa Claus, was a senior in high school the first time he donned the red suit. Butchart's brother asked for a Santa appearance as part of a deal brokered with his 3-year-old daughter, Susan. She had offered to relinquish her "blankey" if Santa Claus himself came to her house to get it.

Butchart borrowed a Santa suit from a local department store and as the hour approached made the final adjustments on his fake beard and the two pillows stuffed beneath his crimson coat. His heart was "all aflutter," he recalls, when he walked to the house and rang the bell. Susan opened the door, screamed, then bolted to her room and hid under her bed in absolute terror. She refused to come out and reduced her father to squeezing under the bed himself to drag her out kicking and screaming. She eventually relinquished her blanket to Santa—a deal was a deal—but she never said a word to him and retreated to her room once the transaction was complete.

It would be 40 years before Butchart put on the suit again. Between that episode and his present incarnation as Santa, he has grown to understand the heart's need to believe, even if it reveals itself in an irrational scheme about a fat guy squeezing down every chimney on planet Earth in a single night.

I say "incarnation as Santa" because Butchart's white fluffy beard is real, he calls his wife, Annie, "Mrs. Claus," and when people stare at him in restaurants and approach him, he signs his autograph: "Remember to be good/Love, Santa." Instead of the North Pole, Butchart is based in Atlanta, Georgia. And instead of a toy shop, Butchart operates a 65,000 square-foot workshop where he and his "elves" refurbish old wheelchairs and other medical equipment to give away to the disabled.

Butchart, 65, was in his earlier life a journalism major at the University of North Carolina, a Marine, and a medical-equipment salesman. In his later years, he heard a higher call—to live out his Christian witness through the character of Santa Claus.

The idea might seem like a contradiction, especially for believers who want to keep the Christ in Christmas, and so eschew the Santa business. My husband and I were numbered among them. One Christmas Eve 17 years ago, when our children were preschoolers, my father snuggled the boys into his lap and asked innocently, "So what is Santy Claus going to bring you this Christmas?" Our 4-year-old looked at him with a straight face and answered, "You can think about him and pretend he's real, but he's not." We were left hemming and hawing, trying to explain that we weren't raising our sons to believe in Santa.

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Our thinking went along these lines: First, there was no getting around the fact that teaching about Santa was a bald-faced lie, and we were raising our sons not to tell lies. Second, we didn't like the focus of "getting" that believing in Santa perpetuated. Santa's unending promises of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Baby-All-Gones seemed a distracting subtext to the greater narrative of the season. Third, it felt like an undue burden to place on our children that there was this all-knowing, all-seeing, gift-giver who would extend or withhold his blessing depending on one's "goodness."

Some called us killjoys. But it could also be argued that the Santa myth itself has a negative effect. Butchart, who has studied these things, estimates that 75 percent of kids up to age 3 are terrified of Santa. "I've been slapped, punched, kicked, head-butted, and generally abused," he says.

Then there is the less measurable disillusionment factor when kids inevitably learn the truth and stop believing. In some ways perpetuating the Santa story teaches our children not to believe in anything, especially when those they trust the most, mom and dad, were co-conspirators in the deception.

Ed Butchart's Santa, however, challenges these notions. He has found a way to redeem the myth and point people back to the Real Magic of that wonderful night. In this sense, Butchart has revived the same spirit of the fourth-century bishop, Nicholas of Myra, whose heroic acts of charity inspired the modern legend. Tom Brokaw, in a 1992 NBC Nightly News report, observed that Butchart's Santa "can only be described as the real thing." He makes even skeptics and Santa abstainers like me want to believe.

Becoming Santa

Before becoming Santa, Butchart was an ex-Marine who was never comfortable around children. He had "learned 43 different ways to kill and survive on the battlefield," Butchart writes in his homespun book Red Suit Diaries. He had been decorated by American and foreign generals, and was part of the honor guard for President Kennedy's funeral. But it wasn't until he changed the light bulb for a church friend who had cerebral palsy that he caught a glimpse of what God wanted him to do. His heart quickened to serving as the hands and feet for people who couldn't help themselves.

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In 1986 Butchart left his lucrative job as a salesman and launched Friends of Disabled Adults and Children (FODAC). Shortly after that he received a degree in theology from Atlanta Christian College and was ordained in the Christian Church in 1989. But what compelled him to don the red suit?In 1987, as his ministry was getting off the ground, his kindly features and exceptional girth prompted someone to ask if he would be the Santa for a church Christmas program. This began the metamorphosis.

Butchart decided to grow his own beard for the next year's event. A holiday stint at a local mall followed, and soon he was in high demand throughout the Atlanta area.

Becoming Santa was more complicated than one might think. There were "crowd reports" to interpret and hair appointments that involved washing, rinsing, and bleaching his new beard. Cynics and spoiled brats abounded among the lap-sitters. "If you're really Santa, you will know my name," some would say. Others relayed several items on their Christmas list and told him to repeat the items in the exact order. Butchart recalls one boy who unleashed a scream "straight out of Rambo, turned, and with both hands grabbed my beard and gave a snatch downward."

The defining moment, when Butchart understood what it meant to be Santa Claus, came one day early in his career. He saw someone in line "bouncing from one foot to the other, wringing her hands as fast as she could, so excited that she could hardly contain herself." She was 35 years old. As the woman took her place on Santa's lap, her mother said, "You don't have to mess with her. She's retarded, ain't never been right!"Butchart smiled. "She is also a child of God," he said, "and he loves her as much as he does any of his children, and so does Santa." The 35-year-old sat precariously on his lap and told him that she would love a Barbie doll.On another occasion at a local mall he saw two people watching him from the second level. It was a mother and her daughter, a young girl in a wheelchair. He waved for the girl to come sit on his lap. They hesitated, but he persisted. They finally came.

"It was clear that she was quite impaired with multiple disabilities," says Butchart. "Her wheelchair had several position devices to help her maintain good posture. She had a nasogastric tube in her nose."

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"This is Lindsey Ann Brown, Santa," her mother said. "She is 4 years old and she loves Santa Claus." Butchart asked if he could put Lindsey in his lap. "You don't have to," the mother said. "Yes, I do," he said. "Santa loves Lindsey too."

He loosened the butterfly brace on Lindsey's chest, lifted her onto his lap, and cradled her head with one hand. He told the photographer to take a full package of free pictures.When he returned Lindsey to her wheelchair, he noticed the positioning pads needed readjustment. The mother said they couldn't afford to have it done, so he wrote down a name and number and told her to "call this guy tomorrow and he will adjust it for free."

Lindsey's mom discovered that "guy" was Santa himself, as Butchart in his capacity as president of FODAC. During that visit, Lindsey's mother explained that they hesitated the day before because a year earlier they had waited in line for almost an hour to see Santa, only to be told, "No way, I'm not about to touch that kid."

When Butchart heard that story, he vowed he would never besmirch the name or the image of Santa the way that cruel impostor had done. He has taken special care to embrace handicapped children and married his role as a supplier of medical equipment to his year-round vocation as Santa.

"You're either going to play the role all the time or destroy the image of what you think Santa ought to be," he told me. "And when you look like me, you cannot escape that role."

How reindeer fly

FODAC receives donations of wheelchairs, walkers, prostheses, beds, and other equipment; refurbishes them; and then gives them away. Butchart estimates that FODAC has given equipment to more than 30,000 disabled people in 51 countries and 35 states, which doesn't include family members whose lives have also been helped. A woman in Cameroon could only sit on the ground with her badly deformed legs underneath her. She incurred the disdain of her village because she could not work in the fields. FODAC gave her a wheelchair. Fifty people had gathered by the time the mediating missionary reached the woman's hut. When he put her in the chair, a fight broke out over who got to push her.

"She went from being the lowest of the low to the princess of the village in one moment," Butchart says.

Butchart doesn't wear his red suit and black boots when he is off the throne, but he always wears his Santa photo id and carries suckers. His warmth and accessibility have kids coming up to him constantly and asking why he's not at the North Pole. He gives them a sucker and they go away convinced they just encountered the Man himself.

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Butchart sees no contradiction between his embodiment of the myth and the Christian view of Christmas. "Children live mostly in a fantasy world, and you can appeal to them more with fantasy than with reality," he says. "Santa Claus is a good place for them to learn about the unconditional love they will eventually understand comes from Christ."

Still, he rejects aspects of the secular mythology. It vexes him that parents use Santa to coerce good behavior from their children. Instead he encourages boys and girls to "be good" because "Santa loves them and that's how they love him back." He says, "That helps kids and adults understand that Christ loved them enough to die for them, and they should love him back by being the best person they can be.

"Children regularly ask him how reindeer fly and how he squeezes down every chimney on Christmas Eve. He responds with a story: "On Christmas night, many years ago, God proved how much he loved the world when he sent us Jesus. And later, Jesus proved how much he loves us when he died on the cross. So that night, when God gave us Jesus, all the love in the world came together in an explosion of power. It's the most powerful night in the world. The power that explodes is God's love. That's when wonderful things happen. Reindeer can fly and Santa can go down chimneys."

He is undaunted by the fear that disillusionment will overtake those who once believed. "I'm absolutely convinced that total believers who become doubters and then unbelievers still understand that you can be somebody else's Santa when you give of yourself unconditionally, expecting nothing in return. By being somebody's Santa Claus, you're emulating Christ."

We hear bells

Columnist Anna Quindlen wrote years ago in The New York Times about a boy named Christopher who believed in Santa. "Christopher's story is the story of our lives, too," she said, "the story of how human beings come to hold on to something soothing and at once wonderful," even though it's imagined or false.

Quindlen also recounted how Christopher's older brother hit him with the cold facts: "Look, stupid: chimney, fat guy, reindeer, nonsense!"There will always be the cynics and unbelievers, just as there will always be parents who exploit the Santa myth to manipulate their kids and kids who milk it for the big payoff on Christmas morning. And sadly, there will still be false Santas who turn away handicapped children.Christopher replied to his brother, "I still hear bells at night."

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My sons laugh when I ask them if they feel robbed having grown up without Santa. But that doesn't mean they don't hear bells on the night when all the love in the world came together in a powerful explosion. A kind fourth-century bishop heard the bells, too, and emulated that love and power. It makes perfect sense that this would inspire a myth. We all hear those bells at night, or long to.

Wendy Murray Zobais a senior writer for CT. For more information about Friends of Disabled Adults and Children, call (770) 491-9014 or visit www.fodac.org .Photography by Glenn Bewley

Related Elsewhere

Don't miss Christianity Today's related story, " The Evolution of St. Nick | Tracing the roots of Santa Claus to the early church."Visit the Friends of Disabled Adults and Children homepage.More about FODAC is available from AccessAtlanta. Read more about Butchart in Christianity Today's sister magazine, Christian Reader.Order Butchart's Red Suit Diaries or learn more about "Mrs. Claus" at Butchart's Web site .Christianity Today's previous Christmas stories include:CT Classic: C.S. Lewis on Christmas | Lewis summed up Christmas in one sentence: 'The Son of God became a man to enable men to become the sons of God.' (Dec. 23, 2000) CT Classic: Bethlehem on a Budget | Planning a church budget and the Christmas story share surprising similarities (Dec. 23, 1999) Christ Is Born, Let Us Keep the Feast and Leap Before Him | A 1,619-year-old Christmas sermon reminds us why we celebrate. (Dec. 23, 1999) Is Christmas Pagan? | Christians found ways to redeem local cultures and salvage those elements that naturally pointed to Christ. (Dec. 6, 1999) CT Classic: Christmas and the Modern Jew | Christians often seem to lack both good missionary strategies toward Jews and sensitivity to their situation in life. (Dec. 3, 1999) Giftwrapping God | Our Christmas celebrations try to hide the nakedness of the Incarnation. (Dec. 8, 1997) Christmas Unplugged | Why spending less and turning off TV should be part of the church's mission to the world. (Dec. 9, 1996)

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