Update: Eric Schmitt-Matzen’s account of a terminally ill boy dying in his arms has been called into question, though he stands by the story. Read more here.
The jolly world that the 61-year-old engineer from a small town in Tennessee had created for kids for almost a decade nearly came crashing down a few weeks ago at a hospital where he consoled a terminally ill 5-year-old, before the child died as Schmitt-Matzen held him.
Moments before he died, the young boy sat up in his bed and asked Santa: “Can you help me?”
“They always ask you the same question,” Schmitt-Matzen told TIME on Monday as he broke down in tears. “That kills you. It really kills you. I usually tell the kids, ‘That’s just not something that Santa can do.’ But I didn’t get that far.”
The child was gone before Schmitt-Matzen could explain the limits of his powers, and the man with the voluminous 12-inch white beard and signature Santa suspenders bolted from the room and made his way to his car before the boy’s family could see him fall apart. “I was crying so hard I couldn’t see anything. I pulled over and cried some more,” he said.
That heartrending moment is just one of many Santas may face when they don the red suit and shoulder the accompanying responsibilities. Veteran Santas who spoke to TIME this week said the job is mostly joyful—until the instant a child asks to be granted an impossible wish.
The deathbed visit Schmitt-Matzen made recently was his fourth in his nine years serving as Santa.
“It’s something you wish you never have to go do,” he said. “I know he had a smile on his face. That’s all I can say. It’s all I can do. It’s a tough job to do. I’d rather his last smile have gone to his mom and dad, but some things we don’t have control over.”
“I was real close to getting some psychiatric help,” Schmitt-Matzen said, adding that he may still seek counseling.
“Those are the most difficult things,” said Connaghan, 67, who has been playing Santa for nearly 50 years. “A child comes up to you and says, ‘Mom and dad aren’t working’ or ‘Somebody in the family is ill. Can you cure them?’”
Even worse is when children say somebody’s hurting them, Connaghan said. “We can’t just get up and run and do something,” he said. “We tell the children to make sure they tell their teachers,” who he says are better trained to address serious issues.
It’s also important for Santa not to make promises he can’t keep, due to potential legal issues. That’s one of many topics Connaghan covers at his International University of Santa Claus, one of a handful of St. Nicks schools scattered across the country that offer brief seminars teaching the basics of spreading holiday cheer, along with how to respond to the thornier moments that arise.
Still, the dark times are rare and the time spent in a Santa suit is mostly rewarding, the Santas say. “It’s a tough job to do, but the rest of the time is a blast,” Schmitt-Matzen said, adding that it was the “wonderment” and joy he saw afterward in children’s eyes that kept him going. “The kids are smiling and they’re happy to see you,” he said.
Ray Lindsey, 63, who portrays Santa in Alabama, says the Santas play an important role in society by keeping the centuries-old tradition alive each year. “We all need something to look up to, something that will keep our souls alive,” he said. “We all need to have heroes, somebody we can look up to. Santa fits that mold.”
Connaghan agrees, beginning to cry as he describes being Santa as one of the most fulfilling jobs anyone could ever have. “To know that you’ve been bringing so much joy to the children and their families, it’s a magical, magical life,” he said.