Photo by Teri Mason

How one man transformed his “Bah humbug” outlook into a hearty “Ho, ho, ho!”

There’s a man in Georgetown who sports a white beard, a jolly smile, and a bright red suit. Who else could it be but Santa? Yet this Santa—a.k.a. Phil Gingras—spent much of his adult life sporting a “Bah Humbug” cap.

Though Phil vividly remembers the magic of Christmas from his childhood, visiting Santa with his parents and enjoying large family gatherings, “Through the years I sort of became sour on the commercialization of Christmas,” he recalls. “Through most of my adult life, friends and family would characterize me more as the Grinch instead of Santa.” Life’s daily stresses, combined with the fact that he didn’t get to see his two sons from his first marriage very often, disheartened Phil. “I didn’t want to celebrate Christmas or even Thanksgiving ,” he says, “because I didn’t feel I had much to be thankful for.”

But as in the cases of Mr. Scrooge and the Grinch, Phil’s heart was to undergo a transformation, prompted mainly by the children in his life.

He was married to his second wife for ten years before they had children, but when Phil became a father again, his heart began to expand. “I cherished being able to be there for them daily,” he says. In 1999, when his third son, Sean, became a Tiger Cub, Phil volunteered as a Scout leader. He says, “I loved being around the kids and their infectious enthusiasm for everything in life, from bugs to holidays.” Phil helped the Scouts with any and all accomplishments, from earning merit badges to understanding the importance of taking care of the American flag. As his involvement grew, so did his enjoyment, and in 2006 he became an Assistant Scoutmaster.

That same year, Sean was diagnosed with leukemia. During the many difficult months of treatment that followed, Phil says, “I learned a lot from Sean. To watch him and his attitude stay so consistent in the reality of what leukemia is, just flabbergasted me. I came to the realization that life is too short not to be happy all the time.”

With Sean’s continued improvement, Phil decided early in 2009 that he wanted to make a surprise visit to see his oldest son and his family in Indiana at Christmas. He didn’t get to Indiana often, so when he did see his grandsons, he’d “go overboard and do the normal Grandpa thing.” And because it was unlikely that, as Phil says, “grumpy old Phil would ever be mistaken for Santa,” he decided that Santa was the very person he wanted to be.

“I spent 2009 transforming myself,” he says. He began growing out his beard in March, and he purchased a Santa suit online. “I debuted my new look on Halloween,” he says, “and the response was overwhelming. Several families invited me to visit to surprise their children” during the upcoming holiday season. “I thoroughly enjoyed the experience!”

But the best moment of all was the arrival at his grandsons’ house. “The look on their faces,” Phil says, “when I arrived unannounced and unexpected—I hadn’t told my son I was coming to Indiana, either—what a wonderful day. I really felt like Santa! It took my grandsons about thirty minutes to recognize Papa.” Grinchy Phil was no more!

“Now I find myself enjoying [being] a year-round real bearded Santa,” says Phil. With hospital, preschool, and nursing home visits, the Georgetown Christmas Stroll, and working with professional photographers on Christmas card productions, he stays busy.

One annual event that’s especially close to Phil’s heart happens when he portrays Santa at the Dell Children’s Hospital. The doctors and staff there played a vital role in helping Sean win his fight with leukemia, and Phil loves being able to give back. The children sit on his lap, telling him what they want for Christmas—toys, dolls, and electronics. A few simply wish to get well. “Those moments are tough,” says Phil, but he tries to reassure them, saying, “Mommy and Daddy have got you the best doctors to help make you better.”

When he visits a family’s home, he typically crosses the threshold singing “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” He poses for photos with each child, and then he sits on the floor—on the children’s level—and reads “The Night Before Christmas.” More songs follow, with everyone joining in, before he exits with “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a goodnight!”

He also surprises kids at day cares and preschools, where children often ask him if he is real. “One little guy,” says Phil, “put his hands behind my beard, gently lifted it to inspect my neck, and then pronounced, ‘Yep, he is real—there’s no glue!’”

“Where’s Rudolph?” asked another little girl. Phil responded, “He’s at the North Pole practicing his flying with the other reindeer.” Concerned that Santa missed his reindeer, she disappeared, only to return with a drawing of Rudolph. “I hope this makes you feel better!” she said.

It’s not just kids but also the young at heart that love Phil. Nursing home visits bring a special twinkle to Phil’s eyes: “Many residents get very few visitors throughout the year, so this visit from Santa is very special for them.” He adds that residents with memory loss “may not remember where they were born or how many children they have, but when they see the man in the red suit, their faces light up like little children’s.”

All year long, while his reindeer are away training for the big day, Phil drives around Georgetown in his sleigh—a red F-150 pickup truck—adorned with antlers and a bright red nose. “I’m very amused,” he says, “by the number of double-takes and honks I get.” And even when he’s not dressed in the red suit, children recognize his white beard and quick smile. Keeping his beard through the long Texas summers isn’t easy, but “peeking around the corner at a child in the toy department and seeing their face light up is reward enough to continue.”

“For me,” says Phil, “being Santa is a responsibility—no road rage when I get cut off, no frowns when the person in front of me is causing a delay in the checkout process, and many other things that often upset our busy days. Portraying Santa has made me much more tolerant of life’s little upsets. I strive to be jolly and friendly all year long.” To Phil, Santa’s true gifts are “joy, smiles, and kindness,” gifts that the children in his life helped him remember, and gifts that he now gives back on a daily basis.

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