By John Dowell
The year was 1983. I was not attending a church, and I was single.
Occasionally I would stop by a little pub. This particular year, Christmas Eve was on a Saturday, and I stopped by the pub on the Wednesday before to have a little Christmas cheer with a few of my friends.
The owner of the pub told us he was going have a Christmas Eve party and he needed someone to play Santa Claus. Would any of us do it? Everyone was quiet, so I volunteered.
Remember, we were in a pub; there wouldn’t be any little kids coming up to sit on Santa’s lap—only young women.
This was going to be fun.
Saturday evening came. I dressed up in my Santa Claus suit, beard and all. I was given a bag of little wrapped gifts the owner had provided for anyone who wanted to talk to Old Santa. I walked in through the back door saying, “Ho, ho, ho, Merry Christmas everyone.” I went to my chair, and said, “Come up and tell old Santa what you want for Christmas.” Young ladies lined up and the fun began.
I got crazy requests like, “I’d like a Mercedes Benz.”
I responded, “If Old Santa gets you Mercedes Benz, could you afford the insurance?”
She said, “You get me one and I’ll get the insurance.”
We all laughed. This went on for over an hour. As the line shortened, a young lady came up and sat on my lap. I said, “Merry Christmas. What would you want old Santa to get for Christmas?”
When I looked into her eyes I could see she was dead serious and she said, “Santa, I just want my little boy back.”
I, too, got serious. Fun and frolicking was over. I said, “Old Santa can’t get that for you.” Then in a moment of divine inspiration I said, “But I know someone who can.” I fell back on my childhood faith and said, “His name is Jesus.”
I asked her if we could pray; she said, “OK,” and we did.
I don’t remember exactly what I prayed that night. The jukebox was playing loud music and people were dancing. I quietly said in her ear something like, “Jesus, you can help this young lady. Her little boy needs to be home with his mother. This is really your special night and we all are doing wrong, but Jesus if you would do this, it would really be a special time for her. Amen.”
That was that. She got up, thanked me, and left.
Playing Santa Claus wasn’t fun anymore, so I too got up, went to a back room and changed clothes.
I tried to find the woman, but she wasn’t around. I didn’t feel like partying anymore, so I quietly left and went home.
For the next few days, I thought about that young mother and then the memory of that night slowly began to fade.
Several months later, I stopped by the pub and was sitting alone with my thoughts when someone tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Santa, I just stopped by to tell you I got my little boy back.”
I didn’t know what to say, but then I said, “Honey, Santa didn’t have anything to do with that.”
She said, “I know.”
Then she left. I never saw her again. I don’t even know her name.
I have no idea where she is today; her son is a grown man by now. But I do know this, one Christmas Eve long ago, God used a non-believer playing the fool as Santa Claus at a pub in Tampa Fla., to touch the lives of a young mother, her son, and the one playing Santa.
What happened to me that night is what John Wesley calls “prevenient grace,” grace that goes before us.
The following June 2, 1984, I gave my life to Christ, and a second “little boy” found his way back home. My life has never been the same.
This special day this year is almost upon us, I thank God for all of you and I wish you and your family a very Merry Christmas!
Dowell is president of the National Association of Conference Presidents of United Methodist Men. This article was printed in the UM Reporter.