NEW YORK—Santa’s glossy, ivory beard hung uncannily from his dark golden face. He laughed heartily as he handed presents to homeless children. Little could one tell, Santa was enduring hot flashes from chemotherapy under his thick ruby suit.
Robert Harris, 75, has been Santa at the annual Christmas Eve lunch for the homeless at City Hall Restaurant for the past 13 years. Harris said the first four days of chemotherapy were the most painful, and Christmas Eve happened to be his fourth day. After the children left, he rushed home to take his medication.“I just do what I can to help them have a better Christmas than they would otherwise,” Harris said. “These kids go through a lot of hardships, but they should know what Christmas is all about.”
Harris has battled with four different types of cancer throughout his life, including colon and prostate. He had been healthy for 23 years until very recently, when he found out his multiple myeloma cancer had returned.
His philosophy in life is to be as kind as he can to others and enjoy everyday, because nothing is promised.[/xtypo_quote]
His philosophy in life is to be kind as he can to others and enjoy everyday, because nothing is promised. “I look at the good in everybody, and then I incorporate it into myself,” he said.
When Harris is not wearing his Santa suit, he dresses in black and navy-colored clothing, drawing little attention to himself. He speaks softly and his words are few. Although Harris is a modest man, he has lived through some extraordinary moments.
A History of Giving
He has always felt that helping and caring for others is one of the most important parts of life. In the 1960s, Harris was heavily involved in the civil rights movement. Although his name is not recorded in history textbooks, he worked alongside many names that were.
Harris spent many years volunteering at organizations such as Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). He worked with figures such as Muhammad Ali, Roy Wilkins, Amiri Baraka, and to this day remains close friends with Roy Ennis, CORE’s national chairman.
“It wasn’t a big deal, all just a part of the process of doing what I do,” Harris said.
He has also joined organizations that fought for benefits for police officers of color, being a former NYPD officer himself. He has lived in New York since 1959. “Everyday was different, yet monotonous. Being a police officer is one of the most ungrateful jobs,” he said.
“You never know what will happen to the people you help,” Harris said. “And most of the time, they don’t even have time to thank you. But you still try your best.”
“When you’re helping others, you get more out of it than they do,” he said.
Harris was involved in organizing welfare strikes and educating people on how to register to vote. “That little bit that I did empowered people, and that is gratifying,” he said.
After Harris retired in 1981, he spent his time traveling to Morocco, Mexico, as well as Europe.
He enjoys playing golf and learning about history. One of his favorite places to visit are archaeological sites in Cancun. “But I always made sure I made it back to New York in time to be Santa Claus,” he said. “I really wanted to be a part of it.”
“This time of year can feel lonely for some people. I just want to help give people a good Christmas,” he said. “I like seeing the smiles on the kids’ faces, the mothers’ faces.”
At times, kids have commented on Harris’s skin color. “Some kids say, ‘You’re not really Santa Clause, Santa Clause is white. I just say no they’re not really Santa Clause, they work for me. I’m the real Santa Clause,” he said as he laughed.
At times, kids have commented on Harris’s skin color. “Some kids say, you’re not really Santa Claus; Santa Claus is white. I just say, no, they’re not really Santa Claus. They work for me. I’m the real Santa Claus,” he said, laughing.
Harris was born and raised in Durham, North Carolina. After graduating from high school in 1955, he joined the Air Force. “I wanted to see the world, get out of North Carolina,” he recalled.
Decades later, he realized there wasn’t really another place that was quite like his community in Durham.
“Everybody knew everybody, and all the children were everybody’s children,” Harris said. His father was a truck driver, and his mother worked long hours at a laundromat.
He said his neighbors would often say to him, “Is your mother at work? Stay with us until she comes back.”
His whole town was one tight-knit community. “It taught me a lot,” he said. Now, year after year, Harris brings that community feeling to kids in New York.
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