God Bless them all, every one!

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Bill Swank has been Santa Claus at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion during "December Nights in the Park" since 2002. (photo courtesy Balboa Park Conservancy)

As a kid, I didn’t know I’d end up looking the way I do. Just look at the skinny rustic above in the Squaremont box.

When you’re a mature gentleman with a full white beard, rubicon cheeks and ample belly, Santa placement agencies, Santa photographers and “Real Bearded Santa” organizations seek you out. I had no interest in becoming a professional Santa. It seemed unSanta-like to me until something unexpectedly wonderful happened.

While loading my plate at the former HomeTown Buffet in Clairemont, I felt something on my leg. I looked down and saw a little Mexican girl with both arms wrapped around my calf. She looked up and said, “I love you, Santa.” I patted her on the head and said, “I love you, too.”

A woman standing nearby asked if that happened often. I told her, “The older I get, the more it happens.” My heart melted.

If little kids thought I looked like Santa, it must be true.

A short time later, my wife and I were at a neighbor’s party when two women approached and said, “We want you to be our Santa.” I wasn’t interested until they explained their connection to the Community Christmas Center in Balboa Park. They needed a replacement for their volunteer Santa at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion during “Christmas on the Prado.”

I am proud to have worn the red suit as San Diego’s Santa in Balboa Park since 2002.

Over the years, I’ve been a volunteer Santa for numerous other charitable organizations. Until San Diego Hospice went bankrupt in 2013, my most gratifying role was visiting kids under their care. I didn’t think it was possible to bring joy into the homes of dying children, but it really happened.

Seven-year-old hospice patient said, “I want to be Santa Claus when I grow up.” (photo courtesy Bill Swank)

I’ll never forget a seven-year-old boy who wanted to be Santa when he grew up. I said, “Why wait?” and removed my hat, jacket and belt. Then I asked why he wanted to be Santa and he said, “I want to do nice things for other people.”

Think about that… A little boy dying of cancer wanted to do nice things for others. By the way, his name was Jesus.

Some of my favorite encounters happen in the food court at Costco on Morena Boulevard when kids figure out who I am. Last month, a little girl asked if I was Santa. I showed a picture of me with some vampires in Balboa Park and the girl’s mother asked if I would pose for a picture with her daughter. I assumed our paths would never cross again.

That afternoon, I received e-mail from Margaret Ryan Smith, a high school classmate. She said her “granddaughter” came home from Costco and was very excited, because she met Santa Claus. Margaret wrote, “I was wondering if you were the ‘Santa’ she saw. I can’t imagine anyone else looking like Santa in ‘street clothes.'”

This little girl asked,”Are you Santa Claus?” (photo courtesy Isabel Harford)

The girl’s mother e-mailed this picture and Margaret sent a further explanation about how Faith became her “adopted grandchild.”

“About 20 years ago, my daughter and her family were sailing around the end of Baja and had problems with their boat. They pulled into a fishing village in Baja Sur and a family came to the boat and took her family up to their house, fed them, gave them a place to sleep and did their laundry. They have been friends ever since.”

My first Squaremont column appeared in December 2014. I knew that a North Clairemont neighborhood near Madison High School was listed as one of San Diego County’s ten best local Christmas displays, but it didn’t have a name. I listed the names of the other exhibits and wrote, “Clairemont should have an equally bodacious name for its own fine Christmas lights display.”

The next year, I visited the Jamar-Lana neighborhood to learn the history of their display. Everyone said that it was Don Park’s idea and inspiration. He turned out to be a very humble, modest, below-the-radar kind of man who had just been diagnosed with cancer. Don was embarrassed by my suggestion that the display should be named “Clairemont Christmas Park” in his honor. His family asked the neighbors what they thought of the idea. Everybody loved it.

Happy 40th Anniversary to Clairemont Christmas Park (photo courtesy Darrell Park)

Don died in 2016, but his spirit lives on in this North Clairemont neighborhood that will celebrate their 40th Annual Clairemont Christmas Park this year. Parents and grandparents take their kids and grandkids to this magical place they visited when they were young. The participating homeowners of Clairemont Christmas Park enjoy making people happy. They continue the spirit of Don Park.

Little Jesus and Faith’s family understand the true spirit of Christmas: giving to others. God bless them all, every one!

Merry Christmas from Squaremont Santa Claus.