It’s hard to imagine a more convincing Santa Claus than Knoxville, Tennessee resident Eric Schmitt-Matzen.
With his long white beard, easy smile, and 6-foot, 300-pound frame, Schmitt-Matzen is like a Saint Nick drawing come to life.
But the most important similarity between Schmitt-Matzen and every kids’ favorite gift-giver has nothing to with appearance, and everything to do with the ability to spread joy to children, even in the most difficult of circumstances.
Schmitt-Matzen recently shared a heartbreaking tale with the Knoxville News Sentinel about the dying wish of a 5-year-old boy who loved Christmas.
The 60-year-old says he received an urgent request from a Knoxville area nurse, who told him that the boy had informed staff that what he wanted more than anything in the world was a final visit from Santa.
“[A local nurse] said there was a very sick 5-year-old boy who wanted to see Santa Claus,” Schmitt-Matzen tells the paper.
“I told her, ‘Okay, just let me change into my outfit.’ She said, ‘There isn’t time for that. Your Santa suspenders are good enough. Come right now.’ ”
Upon arriving, Schmitt-Matzen instructed staff and visitors that it was crucial they maintain their composure:
“I sized up the situation and told everyone, ‘If you think you’re going to lose it, please leave the room,’" he says.
"If I see you crying, I’ll break down and can’t do my job.’”
It’s not hard to see why Schmitt-Matzen experienced a moment of self doubt, but those present say that from the moment he entered the sick child’s room, he never broke character for an instant:
"‘Say, what’s this I hear about you’re gonna miss Christmas?’" the professional Santa recalls telling the boy.
"There’s no way you can miss Christmas! Why, you’re my Number One elf!’”
The frightened child informed Schmitt-Matzen that he had been told he was going to die, and was filled with questions:
"‘They say I’m gonna die. How can I tell when I get to where I’m going?’” the boy asked.
"‘When you get there, you tell ’em you’re Santa’s Number One elf, and I know they’ll let you in.’” Schmitt-Matzen replied.
The two hugged, and the boy uttered his final words:
"Santa, can you help me?"
“I wrapped my arms around him. Before I could say anything, he died right there. I let him stay, just kept hugging and holding on to him,” Schmitt-Matzen explained.
“Everyone outside the room realized what happened. His mother ran in. She was screaming, ‘No, no, not yet!’ I handed her son back and left as fast as I could.”
Schmitt-Matzen says he initially felt that he would never be able to portray Santa again after such a life-changing experience, but had a change of heart after suiting up again for a group of children.
“When I saw all those children laughing, it brought me back into the fold. It made me realize the role I have to play,” Schmitt-Matzen said.
“For them and for me.”