The first time I met Santa Claus, I was a freshman in college and had stopped believing in magic all together.
Years before, as an avid believer in all things Christmas, I had spent every Christmas Eve waiting in bed, listening for the slight jingle of bells that might mean that Santa was in the sky, above my house. And almost every year, right before I fell asleep, I swore I actually heard them.
Then, as tends to happen with age, I slowly became disillusioned with the idea of Christmas.
Material goods, the constant hurry of people buying and shopping for things people didn't need, the ridiculous rush of Black Friday, the loss of the myth of a magic man who delivered presents -- all of it, slowly, but surely, began to fade.
More than that though, I missed the idea of Magic with a capital M. The idea that somewhere in the world, out beyond my frost fringed windows, Good was happening. Kindness was being created, being given. That things could happen that you didn't think could happen. That magic, whatever that meant, was somehow possible, even if everyone said it wasn't.
That belief had faded, and I wasn't sure I was going to get it back.
That was until the year I moved away to college and, around April, first met Santa Claus and visited his fabulous Hide A Way Hollow in Middlefield, Ohio.
Santa's Hollow, a non-profit organization that began in 1981, is an organization whose sole purpose is dedicated to giving critically and terminally ill children the experience of Christmas, no matter what time of year it might be.
At the Hollow, you will find a variety of magical activities and buildings, everything from a small herd of reindeer, to a real estate office in which children can pick out a part of the North Pole to own, to a bank, where deals are made in wishes instead of money.
The man who runs the magic wishes to remain anonymous, but he is easy to recognize -- big red suit, long white beard, and a great deal of jolly. In other words, there is no pretend here -- he is Santa Claus.
Santa visits around 4000 children in hospitals each year, with numbers reaching upwards of 500 children on the busiest days. All of the children are special. All of their stories are important and valued.
But sometimes, every once in awhile, something really extraordinary happens.
As is the case with one magical eight year old boy undergoing treatment at Cleveland Clinic who Santa was able to meet recently.
Santa and his elves (he has a wonderful team of dedicated elves and Mrs. Claus that help him out), had planned to see the boy this past Sunday, however on Tuesday night, Santa got a call from a nurse on the floor where the boy's room was, stating that the child was not doing well, and the nurse was concerned he wouldn't make it through the night.
So Santa hurried to get ready, collecting his elves and volunteer drivers to drive the fire trucks, even calling the Cleveland police to escort them in and make sure they got there in time. Within two hours, they were at the front doors of the Cleveland Clinic and making their way up to the fourth floor, where the little boy was waiting.
Upon arriving, Santa described the boy as looking quite sick -- pale, uncomfortable, and struggling to breathe. The boy then presented Santa with his Christmas list, which consisted of three things: a Mario brothers game, a glass of water, and a new heart.
The game because he had been a fan for quite some time, the glass of water because he was currently too sick to be permitted to drink, and a new heart to save his life. He asked Santa to please promise him he would get a new heart.
Four days later, with out any explanation, Santa got a call from the hospital that said a Christmas miracle had happened -- they had found a new heart for the little boy.
He was being prepped for surgery later that day.
This Tuesday, as the boy was recovering from his heart transplant surgery, Santa visited the little boy again, and this time, walking in, things were wildly different.
The boy beamed, smiled wide, and what's more, his cheeks were almost as rosy as Santa's. His mom cried and hugged Santa. All of the people involved, from the fire truck drivers to the policemen, to the elves, to Mrs. Claus, everyone, was overjoyed.
"You just gotta believe," Santa reminded me, when I had the huge honor of conversing with him two days before Christmas, "...you never know what tomorrow is going to bring. Enjoy every moment you can, enjoy every day with your children, hug 'em, kiss 'em goodnight, tell them you love them - today is a gift."
That, I believe, is how magic comes back. How the belief returns. Brings it back to us, whatever has been missing all of these years. The reminder that somewhere, in some place cold and hidden, good is being created. Kindness is happening. People are giving, the world is giving, and things that aren't supposed to happen do.
Because tonight, in Cleveland, Ohio, one little boy is getting another Christmas, even when everyone thought he wouldn't.
He'll be here, listening for the bells with the rest of us.
And that, I think, is the best kind of magic there is.
For more information on Santa and Santa's Hide A Way Hollow, please visit their website at www.santashideawayhollow.com.