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Dec. 25—Brian Stewart dons a red coat and white beard every holiday season to clock in for his seasonal shift portraying Santa Claus.

Meeting with kids at Logan Health’s Children’s Medical Center, he does normal meet and greets, as well as Sensory Santa events, for kids who have sensory sensitivities and might be a little overwhelmed meeting the man in the big red suit.

Stewart began his tenure as Santa 17 years ago after offering to play the part at an independent living facility he worked at in Idaho. At the time, his sister-in-law owned a costume shop and set him up with a high-quality suit and white beard.

“When you do that, that way, it feels a lot more like you are Santa. You know, when you can really look like Santa and not have the real thin cloth suit … I just was pretty lucky to have an expensive suit for not much and that kind of got me going,” Stewart said.

Stewart became friends with a man named Wally, who was playing Santa Claus at Logan Health Children’s Medical Center, where his wife Amy works as a Child Life Specialist. He and Amy became close with Wally and his wife Louise. He said Wally was committed to the gig up through his 80s, admiring his dedication and love for the role at the children’s hospital.

Stewart said Wally handed him the reins to the sleigh and sadly died soon after.

“Ever since I have been wearing his bells and have been committed to carrying on his loving legacy of spreading holiday magic and kindness,” he said.

Stewart meets with kids who are receiving treatment at the hospital. He visits them for a typical Santa meet-and-greet called Cocoa and Cookies and then has an event for children with sensory sensitivities, called Sensory Santa. According to Logan Health’s website, the event is designed to create a supportive and inclusive environment, mitigating common triggers such as bright lights, loud noises and long waits that can be overwhelming for some people.

Meeting Santa is a magical moment for kids who might be experiencing a tough time. Stewart said when he is asking what they want for Christmas, he is building that magic with every other adult in the room who wants to see these kids have fun.

“Kids feeling that magic, that doesn’t happen very often, right? I mean, maybe it happens if they have a hero, or somebody that they have looked up to for a really long time … But, Santa Claus is this entity that everybody knows, and everybody helps build that magic,” Stewart said.

When he is Santa, he’s the center of attention for the child he is talking to, but he knows they are the center of attention for everyone else. It makes it a little easier to get into character, but he doesn’t have a set plan for every conversation.

“For example, when I was doing it early on (at the independent living facility,) there was a resident whose grandson had moved to Sweden or something like that. So, he had a son that only spoke Swedish. And so when I met him, I learned a couple of Swedish words from his parents,” Stewart said. “I got down on the floor with him and said those few words and he lit up, because he could understand what I said. But, I didn’t plan that, it just happened.”

This approach comes in handy for “Sensory Santa,” when he has to assess how to best engage with each child. The children get 30-minute blocks to warm up to Santa before they come around to ask him what they want for Christmas. What might typically be an overwhelming experience for them becomes a special memory after Stewart takes time to just hang out and play— also providing some cute photo opportunities for parents.

“We’re on the floor playing with toys and that’s always fun. Because these are kids who wouldn’t come up to Santa, but if you go down and play with what they’re doing or do what they’re doing, then they start opening up,” Stewart said.

Though the holidays can be stressful for some, Stewart said he works to create the feelings surrounding Christmas that he felt when he was a child. His family includes a few people with Down Syndrome, including his daughter, and remarked how special it is that the belief in Santa never goes away for them.

“The real, true belief that can come from developmentally disabled people is amazing. So, you want that for other kids, you want that feeling that belief gives you right then— that this person is going to come and bring me presents, that he’s only coming for me. For you to be that important to somebody out there is pretty amazing,” Stewart said.

These days, Stewart is looking more official than ever, working to grow a real, white-as-snow beard throughout the year. He didn’t intend on growing out his beard to look like Santa, though. He did it in honor of his father, who was a long-time mechanic in Glacier National Park. His dad used to grow a beard to help beat the cold in the wintertime, so Stewart took up the tradition and began growing his beard out in August.

When Christmastime came around, Stewart’s wife Amy wasn’t entirely convinced it was white enough to be Santa-worthy, so they went with a fake beard.

“But, afterwards, I took my beard off but still had the suit on, and she’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re Santa, you’re really Santa.’ I never knew that it was going to come in so white and from then on, I pretty much used my real beard. I cut it off in January and then grow it all year for Santa,” Stewart said.

During his most recent meet and greet at Logan Health, he started off slow in pediatrics, because there were so many kids who were sick and in isolation.

“They couldn’t come out and I couldn’t go in. As I walked onto the unit, I passed by one of the patients in isolation. He saw me and called out for me to come back. It felt good to have a child be so excited, even though so darn sick,” Stewart said.

It wasn’t just the kids who were excited to see Santa. Stewart visited staff throughout the hospital, who later met with him to get photos with their pets.

Time was also set aside for pictures with Logan staff families. He said it was fun to see some kids and the families return who were excited to see “their” Santa.

“Two brothers gave me their family Christmas card, complete with a picture of the boys and me from last year,” Stewart said. “That was a bucket-filler. They also included letters to Santa — so great, my first official letters!”

Reporter Taylor Inman can be reached at 406-758-4433 or by emailing tinman@dailyinterlake.com.



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