He's six feet tall, weighs 310 pounds with "just enough of a lap for the kids to sit on" and spent four years in the Army with the 75th Rangers, but that didn't make this job any easier for Eric Schmitt-Matzen, who portrays the quintessential Santa Claus at Christmastime.
With a custom-tailored red suit, a wife who plays an impeccable Mrs. Claus and a ringtone that chirps "Jingle Bells," Schmitt-Matzen truly is the personification of comfort and joy.
But St. Nick's traditionally jolly demeanor didn't spread long-lasting joy, as it so often does, when he was called to a local hospital in Knoxville, Tennessee, several weeks ago.
"I cried all the way home," Schmitt-Matzen told Knoxville's News Sentinel. "I was crying so hard, I had a tough time seeing good enough to drive."
"My wife and I were scheduled to visit our grandchildren in Nashville the next day, but I told her to go by herself," he continued. "I was a basket case for three days. It took me a week or two to stop thinking about it all the time. Actually, I thought I might crack up and never be able to play the part again."
Typically, Santa sees wide-eyed children hop into his lap to share their Christmas wishes. But this time, Schmitt-Matzen was faced with something he had never encountered before, at least in his role as Kris Kringle: A terminally ill child dying in his arms.
Schmitt-Matzen, 60, had just gotten home from a day at work where he serves as a mechanical engineer and president of Packing Seals & Engineering in Jacksboro when his phone rang. It was a call from a nurse requesting he rush to the hospital to visit a very sick 5-year-old boy desperate to see Santa Claus.
"I told her, ‘OK, just let me change into my outfit,'" he recalled. "'There isn’t time for that,' [she said,] 'your Santa suspenders are good enough. Come right now.'"
Within 15 minutes, Santa was at the hospital, where he met the small child's mother and several family members.
"She’d bought a toy from [the TV show] PAW Patrol and wanted me to give it to him," Schmitt-Matzen said, his voice beginning to shake, the News-Sentinel reported. "I sized up the situation and told everyone, ‘If you think you’re going to lose it, please leave the room. If I see you crying, I’ll break down and can’t do my job.'"
Mustering the strength he could, St. Nick walked into the room, hoping to keep from breaking down in front of the small child so thrilled to see him. "Say, what’s this I hear about you’re gonna miss Christmas? There’s no way you can miss Christmas! Why, you’re my No. 1 elf," Schmitt-Matzen told the boy, according to the paper.
"I am?" the child asked.
At that, Schmitt-Matzen gave him a present, which he was nearly too weak to unwrap. But once the boy got all the wrapping paper off, his face lit up with excitement.
"They say I'm gonna die," Schmitt-Matzen said the boy told him. "How can I tell when I get to where I’m going?"
In response, Santa told the little child to "tell ’em you’re Santa’s No. 1 elf, and I know they’ll let you in."
He replied, "They will?"
"Sure," Schmitt-Matzen said.
At that point, the boy leaned up as best he could, gave Schmitt-Matzen a big hug and began to ask one final question: "Santa, can you help me?"
"I wrapped my arms around him. Before I could say anything, he died right there. I let him stay, just kept hugging and holding on to him," Schmitt-Matzen recalled. "Everyone outside the room realized what happened. His mother ran in. She was screaming, ‘No, no, not yet!’ I handed her son back and left as fast as I could."
Schmitt-Matzen said he's seen and experienced a lot, but nothing compared to that moment. He said he "ran by the nurses’ station bawling my head off," adding, "I know nurses and doctors see things like that every day, but I don’t know how they can take it."
For just a moment, Schmitt-Matzen worried it was time for him to hang up his Santa boots and his bright red suit. But after playing one more show and seeing "all those children laughing," he reconsidered.
"It brought me back into the fold. It made me realize the role I have to play," he said. "For them and for me."
His job might not always be easy, and at times it might feel like too much, but at least he was able to bring that one little boy and his parents some Christmas magic, if only for a moment.