Making Spirits Bright: How One USO Donor Brings the Joy of Christmas to Military Kids

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When a military child learns their family will be heading to a new home, the logistics of the move must be carefully considered—packing up belongings, enrolling in a new school, and staying connected with friends and family left behind.

But around this time of year, for many military kids, some critical logistical questions pertain to Santa Claus: Will Santa know we moved? Can he find our new home in a different country? Can he get to us if our new home doesn’t have a fireplace?

Luckily, since Christmas 2020, USO donor Jason Sanderson has given his time as Santa Claus to answer questions like these and let military children know he will remember them on Christmas Eve.

The Man Behind the Suit

Jason Sanderson didn’t always want to be Santa Claus. For years after his beard had turned white, he dreaded the many friends, family, and strangers who would inevitably tell him he resembled Jolly Old St. Nick.

Finally deciding to embrace the comparisons, Sanderson one day received a last-minute request from a local charity event to fill in for an injured Santa Claus. It was only a matter of time before he had enrolled in the prestigious Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School purchased a custom Rudolph-red motorcycle and began exclusively wearing red between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Now, he’s all in.

As a member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, an ordained bishop, and a self-published crime novelist, Sanderson cites some unexpected sources for the skills required of Santa Claus: quick thinking, and a way with words. The ability to build meaningful connections with people of all ages. His wrestling career also taught him to improvise and deal with the unexpected. Sanderson recalls one child who asked to receive a little brother on Christmas morning: “I said, ‘That’s not quite Santa’s department. Maybe you can talk about that with your parents?’”

Sanderson’s decision to support and work with the USO was a natural fit because of his family’s history of military service. A member of his family has served in every military conflict from the Revolutionary War to Vietnam. Sanderson’s great-great-grandmother, Lucy Newton Young, was the first woman from Vermont to volunteer for the Union Army in the Civil War, serving on the front lines as a nurse for the state’s 3rd Regiment. Members of the regiment voted her an honorary member following their mustering out in 1865.

Notably, Sanderson shares that Lucy Newton Young and her husband were well-known for dressing as Uncle Sam and Aunt Betsy at Independence Day celebrations in their small Vermont town. Descending from someone who so uniquely embodied the spirit of service and generosity, it seems some of Sanderson’s aptitude for portraying Santa Claus may be inherited.

Either way, Sanderson firmly believes the essential element of Santa Claus is genuine joy and being oneself: “You’ve got to love what you’re doing, and it has to be an extension of you. I’m not in character [when I’m Santa] … I’m just me from start to end.”

Santa Logs Online for Military Families

Last year, when COVID-19 disrupted holiday traditions worldwide, Sanderson reached out to the USO to see if he could bring Christmas cheer to military families through unusual circumstances. After careful planning, the USO helped Santa video call 150 military families stationed across Europe, the Pacific, and New England in a 15-hour marathon fueled by Wi-Fi and Christmas spirit.

Many of those families were following stay-at-home orders on their installations or enduring a quarantine period, having only arrived in the country that week. In the background of some calls, stockings hung on cardboard moving boxes: “We’re doing things a little differently this year… We don’t have our stuff here yet!”

Marcie Smith West, USO Pacific Regional Operations Manager, helped Santa schedule those calls with military families in Guam, Japan, and South Korea. “Last year was a tough year for all of us, and spending time with Jason was the first time it really felt like it was Christmas.”

Sometimes, Sanderson recounts, the military kids had Christmas lists that looked different from the average American kid. One child told Santa his Christmas wish was to get his dog back, who was also in quarantine due to a mandatory evaluation period some countries require of pets brought from abroad.

Another child just asked to see their father, who was deployed over the holidays. The child didn’t know that the USO had planned a special surprise by arranging for his father to also pop in and join the video call. Sanderson describes the moment it happened: “Under some circumstances, Santa has four stars on his shoulders. But in that moment, I was not the most exciting man in the room.”

Making More Memories in 2021

This year, Sanderson faithfully returned to share more merriment with military families amidst continued pandemic uncertainties. First, he recorded personalized videos for military families in Guam, Hawaii, mainland Japan, Korea, and Okinawa. And on the night of December 16th, Santa teamed up with Christina Gleichauf, a member of the USO Show Troupe, who doubles each holiday season as Tinsle the Elf, to host a special virtual USO Holidays event for 50 military families. During an hour filled with Christmas songs, dances, and stories, Santa and Tinsle also answered questions from the military kids in attendance.

Two of those kids were Cam, 6, and Olivia, 4, watching from their home in Connecticut. They enjoyed singing “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” with Tinsle, watching Santa himself read “The Night Before Christmas,” and learning special secrets straight from the man in red. (Did you know that all of Santa’s reindeer are female, and that they prefer apples and raisins over carrots?)

Cam and Olivia also had a question for Santa: “How do you know kids’ names and what they want for Christmas if they forget to send you a letter?”

Santa stroked his beard thoughtfully before giving credit to his team. “I rely on my elves,” he explained. “They listen and let me know, and I always have my elves helping me out.” Curiosity had been successfully satisfied.

Speaking of questions that only Santa can answer, one of Sanderson’s favorites is why he doesn’t bring presents to parents. As Santa, he says that it’s always a special moment to explain to a child that parents’ presents are different—one of their greatest gifts is seeing their kids smiling on Christmas morning, as they did when they were young. To Sanderson, that’s the real reward: “I’m becoming part of the magic of Christmas, and it’s an honor to create and preserve that magic.”

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