mcj-2020-11-11-opinion-tony-dill-original

Tony Dill fills in for Santa Claus for an appearance at Southern Crossing Outfitters with his granddaughter, Anna Kate Crenshaw, during Amory’s Christmas Open House last year.

I have always loved Christmas…the joy, smiles, treats, stories of Christmases past and most of all that old man in a red suit with eight reindeer pulling his sleigh. I never dreamed that I would one day, become that old man…a Santa Claus.

I have been a carpenter my entire life. Building and creating things with my hands is how I not only provided for my family, but how I spent most of my time at home. I have always loved making things, but one day my life changed.

Four years ago, due to an accident at work, I damaged my shoulder and hip. I underwent surgery for a hip replacement and another surgery to repair my shoulder. During the shoulder surgery, there was an unexpected complication, which resulted in nerve damage affecting my hands and six of my fingers. Without the full use of my hands, I was forced to retire. This was a life-altering event for me. I had worked since I was 7 years old. How do I stop working?

The nerve pain was extreme, and I was unable to sleep for months. In the days that followed, I began to have panic attacks. The doctor prescribed strong medication to help me sleep, but it caused me to sleep for 12 to 16 hours a day. I was slipping into depression. After four months, my wife, Felicia, asked me if I was going to sleep all the time. That was a wake up call for me.

My wife that has stood beside me for 41 years; she needed me. She has been my rock, and I could not make it without her. I couldn’t let her down. I had to wake up and find a way to enjoy life again. With her help, I was able to get off the medication.

Once again, I was unable to sleep, and I spent most of those nights wondering what I was going to do. I needed a purpose. During those long nights, I began to ask God to give me something that I would enjoy doing.

Two weeks later, I was asked to play the part of Noah at my church’s fall corn maze festival, so I decided to try to grow a long beard … something that I had never been able to do. To my surprise, my beard grew longer and thicker than it ever had. Then, I remembered that my twin brother, Terry, had given me a Santa suit the year before at Christmas, as kind of a joke. The beard…the suit … I had an idea!

I asked my daughter, Lorie, if I could come to her store, Southern Crossing Outfitters, during the Christmas season, to be Santa for her customers. She said, “Yes!” That was the beginning of my new journey…the answer to my prayers.

From the first time I opened the door as Santa and greeted the customers with a “Ho, ho, ho! Merry Christmas!,” I knew I had found my purpose. The joy that I get from being Santa is beyond words. I love the smiles from the young and old.

Since that first day, I have returned each year to my daughter’s business and added numerous other engagements including schools, daycare centers, assisted living facilities, food pantries, parades, private parties, and the list is still growing.

I have restored an antique sleigh, and Santa even has a 1950 two-ton red truck for making pictures with all for the people who truly love Christmas. While being Santa, I have learned what Jesus meant when He said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’ (Acts 20:35). Here are four stories that have, especially touched my heart:

Once two young children came running to me crying. They were upset that I wouldn’t be able to find them on Christmas Eve because their house had burned. I assured them that I would find them. With the help of my family and others, Santa was able to make an early Christmas delivery to them. The smiles, laughter, tears and love from a little girl and boy was so heartwarming.

Special needs children and adults have a special place in this Santa’s heart. The smiles and joy on their faces are so beautiful and touching. While visiting a school, I had the blessing of meeting a little girl who was deaf. She would not have anything to do with Santa, but her teacher pointed to me, crossed her arms and pointed to the little girl. She shook her head, no. I asked the teacher if I pointed to myself, crossed my arms and pointed to the little girl; would that say, “I love you?” The teacher said, “Yes.” When I signed, “I love you,” she ran and jumped in Santa’s lap for the best pictures ever. It was a magical moment… Don’t ask Santa to come anywhere, if I can’t see the special needs children and adults.

I love to go adult care facilities and meeting all the residents and staff. There is nothing like the smiles and joy a Santa can bring from just a visit. I feel as you talk to them that they go back in time to Christmases past. I laugh, cut up and try to bring joyful memories, but this Santa has lots of tears.

I remember my own grandmother, Haha, and how she loved Christmas and Santa. She passed away a few years ago. What I would give to have walked in Haha’s room as Santa and dance with her. I was at a facility, and the staff came to me and said, “Santa, there’s a lady that has been waiting for you. Hospice is with her. If you don’t want to go to her room, we understand.” I said, “Let’s go!” As I walked in, her family and hospice staff were there and to my surprise she was alert. She reached for my hand and smiled so big. She passed away shortly after. Sometimes, Santa’s heart breaks.

Visiting schools can be a challenge. Kids tend to tell Santa everything…like I want a baby brother or sister. My reply is usually, “Mom and Dad will have to work on that,” but when a child says all I want for Christmas is a coat or a toothbrush, your heart breaks. Schools are not allowed to give out personal information, but this Santa has a few elves who are just waiting for the call to help get the children what they need. Often the schools will assist in getting the gifts where they need to go.

God has blessed me with a purpose in life to try to make joyful memories for people at Christmas. This year is a challenge with COVID, but there will be a Christmas. I could wave through windows at care facilities, schools or use my truck or sleigh. We all need joy in our hearts more now more than ever.

I will be taking my temperature three times daily and wiping down things. I am open to all ideas and suggestions. There will be a Santa mailbox at Southern Crossing in Amory, if gift needs are placed in the box, please put sizes and denote boy or girl and Santa will try his best to make it happen.

If someone would like to help Santa with sanitary wipes and spray, you can drop them off at Southern Crossing Outfitters Amory. My dad always sings “Jingle Bells” year round, so I pray I might help keep that tradition by putting a Christmas song in your heart and a smile on your face.

Merry Christmas To All!

Tony Dill, who lives between Hatley and Smithville, needs your help in spreading Christmas cheer this year. to help him, he can be reached at his home number at 256-9747 or his cell phone number at 640-8528. His address is Tony Dill, 60399 Mount Zion Rd., Amory MS 38821.

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