For the past two years, Jeff McSweeney has done something fairly unconventional on Christmas Eve—he dresses up as Santa Claus and goes around central Illinois playing the part for children young and old, giving back to the community in the process.
McSweeney got the idea from a friend, to whom he gives full credit: “He, like me, didn’t have a lot of financial resources to help people, but he had his time, and he dressed up as Santa to do a fundraiser for one of his favorite charities in Peoria.” McSweeney followed suit, raising money for his friend’s charity the first two years, but as he continues the tradition this year, he will be raising money for one of his favorite causes—the Eureka Community Nursery School.
Arriving at each house close to the arranged time—somewhere between 10pm and 2am—McSweeney would be placed in the house by parents, who would wake their kids and bring them down to meet Santa after he was in place. The first year he played Santa Claus, McSweeney was quite nervous. The parents who called him to their homes would direct him to “stand over here” or “welcome the kids when they come downstairs.” The children’s reactions to seeing Santa in their homes ranged from genuine excitement to complete terror, said McSweeney. The experience at each house was slightly different.
One of the houses he went to was completely dark inside except for the lit Christmas tree. McSweeney walked in and stood by the tree, waiting for the kids to come downstairs. When they did, he wished them all a “Merry Christmas” and handed each one a small gift, which their parents had provided upon his arrival. Their parents ushered them back upstairs, telling them Santa had to go, and that was the extent of that particular visit. “Some last as little as a minute or two, and others as long as 10 to 15 minutes,” he explained.
Some parents offer the names and notes about each of their children ahead of time, while others merely want their children’s experience to include a silent Santa standing next to their tree. Although his intention was to visit children on Christmas Eve, McSweeney found himself called to a few grownups’ parties as well, one of which turned out to be his most memorable visit last year.
Some friends of McSweeney’s knew what he was up to last Christmas Eve and asked if he’d make an appearance at their family reunion earlier in the evening. They provided a script for him to follow—which, he pointed out, worked quite well, since Santa does have a list he checks twice, as the song says—as he handed gifts out to everyone. One of the women had gone to Jamaica that year, so the script told McSweeney to look at her and say, “I heard you had a really good time in Jamaica this year…” as he handed her a present. The hosts hadn’t told any of the guests that they had invited Santa, so there was a bit of Christmas mystery surrounding his knowledge of their behavior during the previous year.
With the ability to make three or four stops per hour, McSweeney’s schedule for the evening tends to regulate itself based on the locations of his appointments. For example, he makes all of his Peoria stops before heading out to Washington and Eureka. Visits to parties for adults are made between 8 and 10pm, at which time he begins focusing on his visits to children.
McSweeney collects a suggested donation of $25 per visit, but doesn’t want those who can’t afford it to feel they can’t call on him; he will accept whatever a family can give. Last year, he raised about $200 for charity.
Reservations can be made up until Christmas Eve, but the closer it gets to Christmas, the tighter and less flexible his schedule becomes. If you would like to have McSweeney…ahem, Santa…visit your house this Christmas Eve, send an email to [email protected]. iBi