My name is Peter officially, but as soon as I put my red jacket with white trim on every December, I’m ‘’Sensitive Santa’’ or just plain old Santa Claus. I encompass the magic of Christmas and children’s innocence during the festive season each year for many families.
From January to November, I’m a retiree with a colourful career history of dabbling in printing works, sheep farming and computer programming… to name just a few of my past lives. To be honest, my retired years have been the busiest one’s yet. My Santa alter ego began in 2011, when I started basic training for your average Santa photo shoot at the shops. Over the years, I sort of fell into the Sensitive Santa gig – and I have never looked back.
You see, Santa can be quite confronting for most young children. Especially those with additional sensory needs or lacking in social confidence. I take the ‘scary’ out of Santa in these situations. I present the version of Santa that I pictured him to be as a child myself. Someone there to listen, someone calm and there to help you in times of need.
The way Sensitive Santa is held means I get briefed on each family, prior to their visit on the day. I am then able to handle each family’s situation with great consideration. We also allow for lots of time for children to warm up during their sitting, with 20 minutes provided. This means there are no tears in our Santa photos and everyone leaves with a smile.
I often get asked what my secret is to the success of Sensitive Santa and people are always surprised to hear the answer. That my approach is to simply listen to the children who come to meet me. Listening can mean a variety of things. For some families, it’s chatting to the other siblings while the child with sensitive needs feel safe and secure in the environment. Other times, its children telling me their beliefs in Santa or just general stories about their lives.
Children rarely get a chance for an adult to sit patiently and listen to what they have to say.
Often a result from a Sensitive Santa session is not just that the child has felt comfortable in the absence of sensory distractions, but also that I have reawakened their excitement for Christmas time. These are my favourite moments.
There is nothing quite like making someone smile. Yet alone someone who has had a painful experience, battled a condition or just generally unsure of themselves. This is the biggest reward I get out of being Sensitive Santa.
It’s the little touches that help children who come to see me feel excited. I have a real beard, for starters. I also will do things like put on my jacket when they arrive, like a normal adult would do. I’ll bend down to tie up my shoes or put on my hat in their presence – giving off the impression that Santa is just any old grown up. They often look at me mystified while I go about these quite ordinary gestures.
If I’m visiting a pre-school or kindergarten, I’ll even sit and eat morning tea with the children to create this sense of ‘everyday’ with them. It makes the children feel at ease in my presence.
I’ll never forget one year when a young girl attending Sensitive Santa looked up at me with wide brown eyes and asked, ‘’Santa, are you sure your real?’’.
I said, ‘’Well, of course I’m real, look at my hands, look at my feet, they are real, can’t you see them?’’. She intelligently responded, ‘’I know your real but are you really Santa’’.
At this point I made sure I sat completely still, looked back at her squarely in the eyes and responded;
“If you believe I am real, then I am. Santa is here for everyone. Everyone in your school, everyone in your family even… for as long as you believe I am real. I am’’.
‘’Sensitive Santa’’ aka Peter.
A final note from Peter:
Sensitive Santa is a private 20 minute session where families can meet with Santa for their Christmas photos and escape the noise, queues and hype of shopping centres.
The program is designed for children with unique needs or abilities such as those with Autism Spectrum Disorder, with sensory requirements or still developing socially. We cater for children of all ages, including teenagers.
Visiting families make bookings, supply presents for the children involved with the visit and have been interviewed regarding each visitor’s names, likes, dislikes, day to day activities and anything else that brings pride or joy to each child to make their experience personal.