The pandemic has claimed another beloved city tradition: the annual Lighting of the City Green and Christmas Parade event that typically takes place the Sunday after Thanksgiving and helps usher in the holiday season. The City Green will still be adorned in its traditional show of sparkling twinkle lights and holiday displays, but no ceremonial “flipping of the switch” will take place or event festivities, according to Mayor Larry Antoskiewicz.
However, there is still Christmas magic in North Royalton.
Eighty-six year old Don Ray has been playing Santa at Maria Gardens Center since 2008, visiting with children and their families and hearing their Christmas wishes. This year, in lieu of visits, Ray and the team at Maria Gardens have set up two mailboxes in the West 130 location where children can drop off their letters to Santa. Ray will personally respond to every letter left in the mailboxes. Children can expect a response within four days. All that’s needed is the child’s first and last name written legibly on the front of each received envelope and accompanying letter. Children can pick up their reply letters from any Maria Gardens cashier, who will have access to a file box of alphabetized letters.
Ray said he is happy to still be able to connect with area families this Christmas. Over the years, he’s visited with thousands of children at Maria Gardens.
“I average about 450 kids a year, some days, I even had 100 kids in three hours,” Ray said in a telephone interview. “The situations I’ve encountered over the years are really special to me. One year, a little girl pushing her brother in a wheelchair came up to me and instead of telling me everything she wanted for Christmas, gave me a list of everything her brother wanted, who was diagnosed with a severe muscular dystrophy. Another year, a mom came up to me and told me she just wanted a miracle for her 14-year-old daughter, who was diagnosed with cancer and given only a few short months to live.”
Ray asked the woman, whose daughter was too embarrassed to come out for a visit because she had lost all her hair from chemotherapy, to bring her daughter back for a visit the following weekend during his shift.
“The next weekend, I saw a little girl in a cap come over to me. It was her,” Ray said. “I talked with her like she was my own. I wrote her a poem about miracles and how miracles do happen. They left, and wouldn’t you know it, the next Christmas, she came back. She threw herself into my face and said, ‘I made it! Miracles do happen!’”
It’s only fitting that Ray plays Santa. A longtime employee of American Greetings, he retired in 2004 at age 70. Not long after, he grew bored of his long days at home.
“I missed people. I love people. I had basically nothing to do. We moved into a brand new house so there was nothing for me to work on at home,” he said. “One day, I was at the GetGo there by Maria Gardens and I saw that they were hiring part-time cashiers. I asked if I could apply and I got the job. Oftentimes during my shifts, Maria Gardens employees would come in for snacks and we got to talking. I was there for about five years and then my wife had an aneurism, so I left my job at GetGo to be home with her. The following spring, I was shopping at Maria Gardens and this young man in his fifties came up to me and said, ‘Where have you been? We miss seeing you at GetGo!’ I had no idea it was Tim Stopper, who owns Maria Gardens. He asked me if I wanted a job.”
Ray took a job as a greeter (and traffic director in the busy months of the spring growing season) and soon began helping out at Christmastime, telling short holiday-themed stories to customers passing by and then moving on to playing Santa and visiting with children. His roles come very naturally, as he loves public speaking, meeting new people and having conversations. He’s been dressing up as Santa since the late 1970s and has been the guest of honor at numerous stores throughout the Cleveland area and his own neighborhood as his children were growing up.
Though it’s been nearly 45 years, Ray is not ready to hang up his Santa hat just yet. He loves people too much.
“I love making people feel better,” he said. “I’ve met with all sorts of children, many of which were sick or had Autism, Down Syndrome and issues with their sight, among other things. Tim hired me back in 2008 as a greeter, to talk with people and make them feel at home.”
Maria Gardens Center is located at 10301 West 130 Street in North Royalton. The deadline for submitting letters to Santa is Dec. 19.
Santa has also placed his special mailbox right on the City Green, near the main entrance to the Fire Station. It’s all lit up so you can find it. Don’t wait too long, Santa and his elves need time to prepare your gifts. The box will be at that location until December 10.
Just write Santa a letter giving him some ideas of what you are wishing for this year. Don’t forget to include your address so Santa can write back.
Santa likes when you draw pictures of the items on your wish list, so get busy drawing some pictures.
Contributing Writer