INDIANAPOLIS — Jaden Wilson danced in the doorway of his hospital room, peering eagerly as the couple approached.
The 5-year-old waved down the hallway, the excitement too much for him to stay in his bed, for Santa and Mrs. Claus had arrived.
Bill and Kathy Armstrong of Greenfield donned their red and green and traveled the halls of Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health Thursday, bringing gifts and cheer to about 150 patients, their families and staff as part of a tradition that has taken place for decades in an effort to help patients regain a sense of normalcy during the holiday season.
The hospital contacted the Armstrongs after the previous long-standing Santa Claus retired, Bill Armstrong said, and the couple came in to be interviewed for the position by hospital staff.
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“Two hours after, they called and said they’d canceled all the other interviews they had, and we had gotten the job,” Bill Armstrong said. “We felt like it’s a really big honor.”
This was the first year the couple traveled to the hospital to meet patients, but the Armstrongs have been taking on the role of the jolly fat man and his missus for about three years, even traveling twice to the Charles W. Howard Santa School in Midland, Michigan, to learn skills to become the staple Christmas couple, Bill Armstrong said.
Those skills include, but aren’t limited to, learning the history of St. Nicholas and Santa Claus, knowing the behavior of reindeer, getting up to speed on the most popular toys and learning some basic sign language so all children have the chance to connect with Santa, he said.
After Bill Armstrong retired from his job as a physical therapist, he started letting his hair and beard grow long, and soon after, the pair realized he could pass for the real Santa Claus, Kathy Armstrong said.
“We started looking up Santa schools and things online,” she said. “We went to two Santa schools that first fall before we got started, and we enjoy it. It’s mainly the smiles on the kids’ faces and how excited they get.”
Kathy Armstrong has been knitting and sewing since college, and she’s used her skills to create a lot of the costumes she and her husband wear when they transform into Santa and Mrs. Claus, she said. On Thursday, she wore a glistening green skirt to contrast with the traditional bright red of Santa’s suit. She put glitter on her cheeks and sprinkled some into her husband’s long, white beard.
A hospital gurney disguised with cheerful holiday fabric carried gifts, from basketball hoops to teddy bears, for children of all ages.
It was a different type of Santa visit than Bill and Kathy Armstrong are used to, after three years of serving at the Greenfield Kiwanis Christmas house on the Hancock County Courthouse square. While some patients, like Jaden, could get up and move around, others had to stay in bed while Santa talked to them. For some patients in isolation, Santa could only come to their door for a chat.
Even if it’s not a typical visit with Santa Claus, it still makes a big difference for the young patients spending time in the hospital, said Maggie Kirles, child life specialist who coordinates activities to ensure the kids still get to be kids, even while they’re sick.
“If they were at home, they’d be going to visit Santa and making cookies, so we try to create some normalcy for them here, where everything is so unfamiliar,” she said.
Meeting Santa and Mrs. Claus and getting a present from them has a huge effect on patients’ moods, Kirles said.
Mia Mullen, 5, wasn’t feeling well before the Armstrongs stopped by her room, but by the time they left, she was grinning.
Samantha Lilley, 10, and her mom, Alisha Lilley, of Milton, Indiana, waited patiently in Samantha’s room for their visit.
Samantha was impressed with how real Bill Armstrong’s Santa looked, mentioning other Santas she’s seen near her hometown need to up their beard game.
Looking the part is only part of the magic for Bill and Kathy Armstrong, though, with the greatest satisfaction coming from knowing how to make parents and kids alike feel at ease.
Bill Armstrong’s hearty “ho ho ho” rang out through the hallways, announcing his arrival at each room.
“Are you getting all better?” he asked each child and young adult. “Santa loves to see you getting better and getting out of the hospital.”
Santa’s House, located on the Hancock County Courthouse Plaza, will be open the following hours leading up to Christmas for children to visit with Santa Claus:
- 2 to 5 p.m. today and tomorrow
- 6 to 8:30 p.m. Dec. 23
Photos with Santa are $5, and the proceeds will benefit Riley Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis.