A professional Santa said he almost hung up his suit for good after a heart-wrenching experience at a child’s death bed.
Eric Schmitt-Matzen, 61, of Caryville, Tennessee, usually walks away from his gigs with a big smile and fulfilled heart. He’s been making children smile as Father Christmas for 9 years now and seeing those happy faces is his favorite part of his job.
“They’re all so excited,” Schmitt-Matzen told ABC News.
But after a recent encounter, he said he was left with tears — so much so that he had trouble driving home.
“I had to stop a few times because I couldn’t see where I was going,” he said.
Schmitt-Matzen received an urgent call from a nurse at the local hospital.
“She goes, ‘There’s a little guy that’s about ready to pass. And he’s more concerned about missing Christmas than he is about dying,'” he recalled, noting that he went to the hospital as soon as he could.
“I met the parents and relatives down the hall. I said, ‘If anybody feels like they’re going to lose it, please wait in the hall because I’ve got to be happy and jovial. If anybody starts to cry, please do run out the hallway because I can’t do my job,'” Schmitt-Matzen said.
No one managed to follow him into the room, Schmitt-Matzen said, adding that he didn’t want to divulge details of the hospital or the boy’s illness to protect the privacy of the family and the nurse who called him.
“What’s this I hear, you think you’re going to miss Christmas?” he asked the 5-year-old boy. He nodded and Schmitt-Matzen told him, “No way. The elves had this present made for you for a very a long time ago.”
Schmitt-Matzen gave the boy the present his parents prepared for him. He said the boy needed help unwrapping the paper but smiled when he saw the present.
“He laid back and looked up at me and said, ‘They tell me I’m going to die.’ And I said, ‘Can you do me a favor? When you get to the pearly gates, you tell him you’re Santa’s number one elf.’ And he said, ‘I am?’ I said, ‘Sure you are. And they’ll let you right in,'” Schmitt-Matzen said.
He said the boy then looked up at his eyes and asked, “Santa, can you help me?”
Schmitt-Matzen said he hugged the boy and that’s when he passed away in his arms. “Tears were running down my face,” Schmitt-Matzen said, adding that it took him a while to recover from the heartache. “It took two weeks to not be seeing his little eyes looking up at me all the time.”
However, he says he is still committed to making Christmastime a magical experience for children. “I don’t look forward to doing it again but if I got the call I’d do it in a heartbeat,” he said.
“You got to feel it in the heart to be a good Santa. Whether you got a bad beard or a good beard, a good ‘Ho, ho, ho’ — that comes later,” he said.