When Byron Pittman became a professional Santa Claus, it changed more than just his appearance. It transformed his life.
Content warning: This article contains material about suicidal ideation.

Paying it forward saved my life.

That has to be the second craziest sentence I’ve ever said. The first has to be, “I’m going to be Santa Claus.” This is my story. 

For many years, I was building a promotional advertising and screen printing business. It was becoming successful and prosperous when life happened. During a late, rainy February evening, a young driver lost control of his pickup truck and hit me head-on. 

Making a long story short: There were major bones broken and numerous injuries, and even more long-term and life-lasting effects from those injuries. The crash brought on post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and severe clinical depression. I left the business and focused on healing and learning how to walk again. Over the next several years, I began sinking lower and deeper into depression and mental illness.  

Making a tragic and deadly plan, I set a day to commit suicide. Waking that morning, my body betrayed me, and I had a major panic attack. My amazing and loving wife saw what was happening and immediately took me for help. I checked myself into a local mental health facility, spending several weeks getting the professional help I needed.

My therapy continues even today, but during one of those early sessions, my therapist asked me to name the happiest person I knew. Half joking and half being a jerk, I quickly spouted, “Santa Claus.” I was sent away from my therapist with homework: come back with a list of reasons why Santa Claus was happy. 

Saint Nicholas of Myra, also known as Nicholas of Bari, was an early Christian bishop of the ancient Greek maritime city of Myra in Asia Minor. He was attributed with giving to the poor and needy — often children and young people — gifts of money and more. His story sparked the legend of today’s St. Nick, or Santa Claus. 

Santa Claus smiling at the camera.

My therapist had me on the spot. Santa was happy when he gave and connected with people. He was happy when he paid it forward. In passing, my therapist said to me that I would make a good Santa if my beard was white. So, I became Santa Claus. 

I remember nearly everything about the first child I helped as Santa Claus. I remember his face, how he was standing waiting with his parents. He was rocking back and forth on his heels holding onto a velvet rope where the line began. He reminded me of a race horse in the starting blocks waiting to burst forth. And that’s exactly what he did when they lowered the rope. He sprinted toward me and jumped into my lap from several feet away. His arms quickly wrapped around my neck, and he whispered in my ear, “I love you, Santa.” From that moment on, I was Santa Claus, and I most likely will be until I leave this earth. 

Quickly I learned that giving pays the greatest rewards. Giving my time and my energy has showed me how to appreciate small things I take for granted. Most children don’t ask Santa for small things, but a few do come, eyes down, and ask for a simple toothbrush because they don’t have one. Or sometimes I’ll see how they wear split open shoes or flip-flops while it’s snowing outside. I buy them what they need and, through generous gifts from people like you, I get them more. 

Santa is happy and jolly—and it’s infectious. The grumpiest of anyone will crack a smile when they see him. Paying it forward saved my life. I still have depression and anxiety, but when I can remove the focus from myself and onto making connections with others, I find happiness. And I know that others have a similar personal experience — according to research done by Stanford psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, random acts of kindness help you feel happier and more in control of your life. 

A small boy running with open arms toward Santa Claus.
Photo courtesy of Rebecca Rademan and Busch’s Florist

“I remember nearly everything about the first child I helped as Santa Claus. . . . He sprinted toward me and jumped into my lap from several feet away. His arms wrapped around my neck, and he whispered in my ear, “I love you, Santa.” From that moment on, I was Santa Claus, and I most likely will be until I leave this earth.”

Santa B Pittman

One of the ways I pay it forward is by encouraging people to make those personal connections. Call up someone you haven’t spoken to in awhile and encourage them. Look for ways to make a difference, and don’t get stuck in a rut doing the same thing over and over. Paying it forward is not just paying for the food of someone behind you in the fast food drive-thru. In fact, sometimes it’s the opposite.

I read recently about a pay-it-forward miracle. Somewhere in Florida, 458 cars paid for the order of the person behind them. The spectacle went on for hours. The TV news was called, and happiness was everywhere.

I sat in a local fast-food drive-thru recently and saw the same thing happening. (It was only four or five cars, not 400-plus.) Then I saw the young girl working the cash register frustrated and struggling to keep the orders and change correct for each person. When I made it to the pickup window she was nearly in tears. She explained my order was paid for by the previous car and asked what I wanted to do. I looked at my $20 and handed it to her and said this is for you; I will not be paying for the next person. We connected for a brief second as she wiped away a tear and it struck her what just took place. A smile replaced her frown and she thanked me. As I got my order she said that she was going to find a way to pay it forward in a personal way soon. 

Another way I pay it forward is when I get good service; I tip generously and leave a quick note telling them about how great of a job they’re doing. I’ve met waitresses who later tell me the note was of greater importance than the money. 

Money isn’t everything when paying it forward. Even if I find myself short on cash, I know that my most valuable asset is my time. Often, a few minutes with my elderly neighbor is the daily pay-it-forward that we both needed. Sometimes in a grocery store, I force myself to look fellow shoppers in the eye, smile, and say hello. One person told me that doing that started to change a bad day into a better one. A struggling single mom looked to be at her wits’ end trying to hold her crying child and put her shopping bags in her car. I stepped in, loaded her car, and put the shopping cart away while she cared for her child. A quick smile and “have a blessed day” later, we were both on our separate ways feeling better.

There are so many ways to pay it forward — so be creative, think outside the box, and just start doing it. I tell people to be Santa every day of the year. Focus on giving and fun. Most importantly, be available. Sometimes to make a difference in someone’s life you don’t have to be brilliant, rich, beautiful, or perfect. You just have to care enough and be there.  

Santa Claus, A.K.A. Byron Pittman, went to Eldon High School and Southwest Baptist University. Byron lives with his wife, Dawn, three dogs, and two cats in Jefferson City.

For speaking engagements, contact him on Facebook at Santa B Pittman

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