Commentary: The role of a lifetime, delivered by the real St. Nick
Santa handed me a thick, manila envelope.
"My screenplay," he said.
This is what Santa's been doing since he retired, but please don't tell your kids.
I read the screenplay, and I've got to tell you: It's pretty amazing. It starts with Santa's humble beginnings in a New York orphanage 75 years ago, where he made his first suit out of a dyed bedsheet and infirmary cotton.
Forget all those other stories you've heard about Santa's origins. This is the true story. And that's because he's the real Santa. I'm a believer, and here's why:
I saw him work the crowd at a garden center in northern Virginia years ago, and it was an uncanny, even eerie experience.
He was part therapist, listening to kids talk about their parents' divorce or even a mother's death, coming up with the most beautiful and eloquent ways to handle the kind of devastation that would leave most of us stammering.
"You are lucky, little one," Santa told the girl whose mother died on Halloween night after a long illness. "You have two guardian angels - your own that came with you when you were born, and now your mother. She is with you every day, wherever you go."
He told her to leave her favorite pair of shoes under the tree, and on Christmas morning, there would be a present in them from her mother.
"I was overwhelmed with joy when on Christmas morning I found mom's favorite earrings in my shoes," the woman, now an adult, told a crowd of his admirers.
He was part psychic, knowing exactly what kind of pet a kid had, what he was in trouble for at home or what instrument she played at school. He had a special way of knowing whether mom really thought Santa should leave a new iPhone under the tree. (No, usually.)
He was a true, Christian pacifist, walking kids who asked for guns or violent video games through the idea of something made to cause harm. I watched him do this days after the massacre of first-graders at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
The hours-long wait for him included 30-year-olds who sat on his lap and asked for a Ford F-150. "I believe," they said. Grandmothers who been coming to him for 40 years returned. They brought their kids. Then their grandkids.
He worked his magic on me. Notebook and pen in hand, I dissolved, my eyes welling up as he hit the pitch-perfect emotional sweet spot of my own nostalgia and my motherhood anxiety. I can't tell you exactly what he said - the notes are smeared with tears.
Where did he get his ju-ju? Was he a psychologist? An FBI profiler? A shaman? A pastor? I had to find out who this guy was, so I tracked him down, seven years after we first met, and asked for a meeting. He agreed.
There were ground rules. It would be at the Virginia house of a guy who knows the whole story, 89-year-old John Buckreis. He would be in full uniform, even at John's kitchen table.
And one of Santa's longest-serving elves, a guy named Boomer Buckreis who moonlights as an administrator at a Catholic high School, would be there. Boomer, the youngest of nine elves, wore the hand-me-down elf costumes that were pretty worn out once they got to him. "We did the whole thing, the tights, the eye makeup," Boomer said, probably knowing the kids at the school would be merciless if they knew.
Christmas began in October for the Buckreises. They constructed elaborate sets and created themes, like the upside-down house, where a bucket of fried chicken, the Christmas tree and tables and chairs were all stapled to the ceiling. They did the popcorn and the photos, working the crowd every school night before Christmas, usually until 10 p.m.
And on Christmas Eve, they loaded up the station wagon with bags of toys and drove into the most impoverished neighborhoods in the nation's capital, handing out toys.
But the whole thing gets better once you dive into Santa's screenplay and his origin story.
SCENE ONE opens in 1944 at St. Vincent's Orphanage for Boys, where the orphans wake at 5:45 a.m., get dressed in their plaid shirts and corduroy knickers, sling their newspaper bags over their shoulders and head out to work.
The boy was just 2 years old when his parents died - six months apart - of the flu. He and his brothers and sisters were divided between foster homes and the orphanage.
"It wasn't so bad, not all that scrubbing the floors stuff you see in movies," he said. "But it was all I knew."
There was, however, one oversight that really bothered him. Santa visited the wealthy kids in town, but not the orphans.
With this on his mind, the 14-year-old boy ducked into a church at the end of his newsie shift, and he fell asleep near the nativity scene that was under construction. That's when he had the dream that a spirit visited him and told him that he should be St. Nicholas.
Cut to the orphanage, where he cuts and sews that suit out of a bedsheet and dyes it red thanks to Tintex that he bought with a dime the kitchen lady gave him.
Then he went over to the wealthy neighborhood in town and sang Christmas carols at the door, asking the people inside to fill his sack with toys for the orphans.
And when he returned to the orphanage with a sack full of toys, the kids were overjoyed. He took the leftover toys and left them on doorsteps at the Buckeye Projects, the poorest part of town.
Over 75 years, the Santa outfit got plusher. The toy bags got bigger and so did the number of visits to impoverished neighborhoods. He worked at Sears by day, dropped toys at housing projects at night.
In 2016, he was inducted into the Santa Hall of Fame. It's a real place, in Indiana.
Last year, Santa's No. 1 helper, Ann Buckreis, passed away. And that's when Santa decided it was time to retire.
John Buckreis said that Santa will make a few visits to churches this year. And he will make appearances when a short documentary about him - done by two California filmmakers who once visited him when they were children - is screened.
He recently found a cache of boxes filled with letters from children, many of them decades old. And he's begun answering the ones with return addresses - 690 letters so far this year.
And he still knows exactly what to say. He's the real thing. And I hope his screenplay gets made into a movie. It will be the best Santa flick yet.