Not that he’s complaining, but Santa is going to have to work twice as hard this year.
What I’m trying to say is that next week, I will squeeze my overstuffed body into a sweltering red-velvet suit to portray Jolly Old St. Nick at not one but two huge holiday parties for about 650 incredibly excited and economically disadvantaged schoolchildren.
The festive folks at Variety, the Children’s Charity of Manitoba, have organized two glitzy Winter Wonderland parties — Dec. 3 and 4, at the Metropolitan Entertainment Centre — in hopes of making a special holiday memory for disadvantaged kids from 10 Winnipeg schools.
Last year, Uncle Doug was invited to fill Santa’s big black boots at a single party, but the folks from Variety have decided to double the fun this year with two holiday bashes, because the need just keeps on growing.
"Our goal this year is to brighten the lives of twice as many deserving children as last year," said Jeff Liba, CEO of Variety, which provides specialized equipment, programs and services for kids with special needs in Manitoba.
"We want to keep on helping more and more kids each year. Last year, with one party, we didn’t even come close to scratching the surface of kids that need a special day out like this."
Which is why, over the course of two days next week, busloads of kids from 10 schools — Donwood, Cecil Rhodes, Frontenac, Shaughnessy Park, Lord Selkirk, Norquay, Sister MacNamara, Robertson, Ralph Brown and Archwood — will roll up to the Met just before noon for a day of feasting and festive entertainment, including magicians, face-painting, glitter tattoos, carolling and a visit from Santa, as portrayed by an extremely sweaty and overweight newspaper columnist.
If you happen to be an impressionable young person reading today’s newspaper, Uncle Doug is not saying that he is, in fact, Santa; what Uncle Doug is trying to say is that he is one of Santa’s helpers, sort of a subordinate Claus, if you catch my festive drift.
At risk of sounding like an overly sentimental Hallmark card, these children’s parties — "They’re like galas for kids," Liba explained — are just another example of kind-hearted Winnipeggers coming together to help those in need, especially children.
"The generosity of our province continues to amaze me," my philanthropist buddy Louis Trepel, Variety’s longtime ambassador and the driving force behind the parties, told me. "We had to cap the number of volunteers again this year, because so many people lined up to be a part of these special days."
Everything for the two kid-friendly holiday shindigs — food, the venue, the entertainment and more toys than you can shake a family-sized container of eggnog at — has been donated.
"Last year’s event makes me want to do this that much more," a slightly misty-eyed Janet Harder, general manager of the Met and the "elf" who gets stuck helping Santa squeeze into his oversized suit, told me.
"Who wouldn’t want to be part of this? My big memory of last year is that a lot of kids ate half of what was served to them so they could take the other half home for a brother or sister."
In a sincere effort to get me pumped up to play Santa on two consecutive days at parties that are a cross between a soccer riot and a kindergarten Christmas pageant, Louis and Jeff insisted I meet them at the Met this week to check out the venue and get a pre-game pep talk.
"You need to get a really good sleep the night before and come in bigger and better than ever," explained Louis, who has talked this columnist into doing dozens of charitable events — including portraying Shermy, the hapless shepherd, in Manitoba Theatre for Young People’s production of A Charlie Brown Christmas — over the years. "We want you to share all the love and joy that I know you have inside with these kids.
"Meeting Santa is the highlight of the day. That’s what they’re going to go home and tell their parents about, and the other kids at school."
Liba, Variety’s boss in Manitoba, said it’s all about making a magical Christmas memory for a group of kids who typically don’t have many opportunities to celebrate at this time of year.
"The need is astounding," he said over coffee. "One in three kids in this province don’t have enough. That’s shocking when you think about it. We’re not trying to raise a bunch of money. We’re just trying to do something nice for kids that deserve it.
"We do rank lowest of any province when it comes to child poverty. One in three kids are living at or below the poverty line. For us to provide these kids with opportunities is a good thing for all of us."
The way it works is the kids will be met by teams of volunteer elves and escorted through the foyer, which will be festooned with an explosion of holiday decor, including a snow-making machine that Liba — "I had to try it out" — bravely tested in his Variety office.
Sporting novelty reindeer antlers, the kids will be greeted by Mrs. Claus, as portrayed by Barb Rudiak, before being ushered into the theatre for entertainment and a feast of cheeseburgers, chicken fingers, veggies and dip, all served at tables covered in white linens.
Then Santa makes his grand entrance on an upper balcony before hitting the stage to lead a round of holiday karaoke, capped off by St. Nick wading into the sugar-fuelled kiddie mosh pit to hand out hugs and holiday toys.
Speaking of toys, Santa’s pal Louis approached another buddy, toy-marketing expert Robert Yusim, for a little help in soliciting donations.
"Fifteen minutes later, I got an email saying, ‘Louis, I’ve confirmed 650 toys to cover the two days’... the next day he gets back to me and says, ‘I’ve got 650 more toys from a different toy company.’ And a day later, he gets back to me and says we’ve got another 650 toys," an overjoyed Louis chirped.
"Bison Transport is delivering all the toys for the parties as a gift for the kids — 14 pallets of toys. That’s a lot of toys. There’s a lot of kindness out there."
Before they leave, the kids also get a loot bag stuffed with goodies and practical items, including socks and toques. But the best gift of all is an unforgettable holiday memory, and knowing their community truly cares about them.
Doug has held almost every job at the newspaper — reporter, city editor, night editor, tour guide, hand model — and his colleagues are confident he’ll eventually find something he is good at.