For Michael Fleishman, magic happens. Williams High School teacher by day, Santa by night, Fleishman is well suited for both roles. Approaching life with a twinkle in his eye, he is a student of human nature, looking to create meaningful interaction with each person he meets.
That is a tall order for a Santa, employed by the Grand Canyon Railway in Williams, with a steady stream of passengers. This is Fleishman’s tenth season on the Polar Express, which takes riders on a 17-mile train ride to the North Pole. Many participants show up in pajamas, looking like characters in the Chris Van Allsburg Polar Express book. Each person boards the train with unique expectations.
Several students in Fleishman’s science classes also work on the Polar Express, where they collaborate on spreading cheer. If one of the students learns the name of a young passenger, or an item on a holiday wish list, the intel is shared with their teacher. “I walk up to 16-B and say, ‘Susie, you’re here! My elves tell me you want a Barbie,'” said Fleishman, describing the look of surprise on the faces of Susie and her parents.
The longtime Williams resident clearly loves his jobs. His Santa’s sack is full of heartwarming stories.
Like the older gentleman with a cockney accent who chastised Santa for overlooking his rollerskates all those years ago. Fleishman, realizing the man was likely a child during World War II, had a quick reply. “I’m sorry, but those were really hard times. And not every boy and girl got what they wanted for Christmas.” Fleishman continued, “You know why you didn’t get those skates? Because I knew you were strong enough to go on without them. And there is nothing I can do to change it, but I can do something for you now; I can give you this bell, and the spirit of Christmas, and you can ring that bell whenever you want.” With a tear in his eye, the older man embraced Fleishman in a bear hug, wishing him a happy holiday.
Some of the encounters are bittersweet. Fleishman meets many people who are sick and know it will be their last holiday. Like a mom, clearly in pain, whose body had wasted away. Surrounded by her husband and young children, Fleishman took extra time, giving the mother a bell, and a Christmas wish. While it is sometimes difficult to stay dry-eyed, he says he always has a heartfelt “Merry Christmas” for all.
Bruce Brossman says you can’t underestimate Santa’s importance on the Polar Express. The director of sales and marketing for the Grand Canyon Railway predicts they will surpass last year’s record of nearly 90,000 holiday passengers. Brossman believes Santa’s entrance into the train car is the event’s culmination. “I think it is key to the whole thing, the moment all the kids are looking for. And when the bell gets handed to them, that is what it is all about.”
Fleishman agrees. “My goal is to make those kids know they’ve just seen Santa.” It is serious business for the educator of nearly 35 years. “I have seen bad Santas with fake beards who are clearly just out to make a few bucks. Kids are very perceptive and they see that,” added Fleishman, who works hard to preserve children’s dreams and ideas about Father Christmas.
“We’re celebrating a secular holiday, a birthday of someone who said, ‘among all else, love each other.’ And these external symbols and signs are just a reflection of that message.” Embodying that conviction, Fleishman continues to don his red suit, reminding himself of life’s many gifts, and looking for creative ways to spread the Christmas spirit, not just this month, but year round. FBN
Michael Fleishman had many Santa stories to share. Here on some additional reflections, exclusive to flagstaffbusinessnews.com
Fleishman earns a smile from even the toughest customers.
“Imagine you’re a 15 year old teenage boy, who has just been yanked away from your girlfriend in Scottsdale to join your seven year old sister to go see Santa, and you don’t want to do it but mom and dad say you’re going. So I walk into the car and you see that 15 year old and he is sitting there, his body language says ‘I don’t want to be here.’ So I deal with the seven year old, and then I turn to the 15 year old and you give him a bell. I tell him, ‘remember to keep the spirit of Christmas in your heart every day,’ and you physically see the change in (his) face. This is the spirit we’re talking about. Not santa passing on a bell.
“When you walk into a car and you see a family, a mom a dad and grandkids. and you see a grandma who sits there with a wedding ring on her finger, sitting opposite but obviously with no grandpa. You stop, you put your arm on her shoulder and say, ‘Merry Christmas.’ And something changes. You know, you have people that are feeling so many emotions, how are you going to react to all those emotions? What are you going to give that person? While remembering there is a spirit we’re supposed to be celebrating.”
Fleishman often gets young people who ask “are you the real Santa?”
“Well, why don’t you pull on my beard,” he responds to them.
The often astonished youngsters proceed with telling Santa what they would like for Christmas.
Stephanie from Tennessee was really fun. I walked into a car and the passenger service attendant said ‘1A, blonde ponytail, Stephanie. Remember the name.’
And I see this little thundercloud. Arms crossed. Ponytail bouncing. Blue eyes, she knows something is wrong. She is with her father and a little boy, who is just five or six. He just takes the bell. Then, I turn to Stephanie and say, Stephanie, before I give you your bell, I want to ask if you’ve been a good girl this year. When I said her name, her mouth goes wide, (thinking,) how did he know me? And then she nods her head and says, ‘yes’. Her dad is smiling. The dad says ‘Stephanie are you going to ask a question?”
She ask if I’ve ever spent time in Tennessee.
I had been recently researching my great grandfather, a veteran of the civil war in the 9th Tennessee Infantry. And he lived in Murray County. His name was John Gresham.
I said, “As a matter of fact, Santa does like to spend a lot of time after Christmas in Murray county.” Somehow, with the dozens of counties, I hit it.
The dad’s look of astonishment: his mouth drops open and I”m looking at the carbon copy of Stephanie. Amazement. And I get close to his face and I wink at him and say, “Merry Chrirstmas.’ I wish I had a camera because it was the same expression of “I don’t believe this.” I made that man stop and say, ‘how?’ It’s magic.
One of Fleishman’s favorite Santa stories took place inside the depot, where he was sitting on a platform, posing for photographs. An elderly lady walked by with her cane and Fleishman suggested she came up and talked to Santa.
She told Santa, “I haven’t talked to you since you scared me when I was eight.”
He responded, “We’ll we’re going to deal with that. And she looked at me like i was insane. I got up off my chair, walked down the short set of steps and put my arm out to her.”
She looked back with disbelief, not wanting to play along. He persisted.
“I walked her up the stairs, and I sat down, she sat on my lap. And i said, Merry Christmas, how are you? And she said, I am 92 years old, I’m dying. I won’t be here next Christmas. My son said he wanted to take me to places I’ve never seen so I’m going to the Grand Canyon. ”
For the next 25 minutes, Fleishman and the woman on his knee, talked about life, love, children and loss. “I was connecting with a human being that was ready to start a different path. It was incredible. And I look up, after 25 minutes, there’s a throng of people, you could hear a pin drop, there were tears coming down their faces. And then she looked up. We didn’t see them at all.
“I said, it looks like we have guests doesn’t it? She said, ‘thank you’ for coming down tot get me. And I said, ‘you had some years to catch up on.'”
She then kissed Fleishman’s cheek and said ‘Merry Christmas.”