Hey, Saa-antaaa!

by Maggee Davis
Massachusetts, USA

“Dave” had Down Syndrome and grew up in a state institution for the mentally impaired. He was there from age one, then released along with many others in the 1970s. Dave then lived in a community residence with three other men. The residence had three staff people, including me, who helped the men take care of everyday needs — laundry, cleaning, shopping, food preparation, going to movies, taking vacations, and so on.

When I worked with Dave in the 1980s, he was 45 years old. He had Irish heritage, black hair, blue eyes and no teeth. His bowl-shaped haircut complemented his low hairline, a common feature among people with Down Syndrome. He belted his pants below his round belly. Dave appeared different from most people, but he was clean-shaven, looked clean, and managed his self-care well.

Early one December morning, I took Dave to Arsenal Mall in Watertown, Massachusetts, to help him buy Christmas presents and personal care items. At the end of a long hallway, we saw someone setting up for the day: the mall Santa. He was portly and older than most mall Santas, with a fake beard but real glasses.

Hey Saa-aanta! Usually Dave communicated with a simplified version of sign language. He seldom spoke. But right then, he raised his arms and yelled in a loud, clear voice: “Hey, Saa-antaaa!”

As Dave waved and hollered with the biggest grin I’d ever seen on his face, Santa put on his cap and came right over. I gave him a heads-up by exclaiming loudly, “Look, DAVE, it’s Santa!” Santa picked right up on it. He said “Ah, Dave, I was hoping I’d see you here today.” Dave was thrilled. Santa shook his hand, clapped him on the shoulder and *knew his name*.

Dave spoke little, doing his usual muttering, simplified sign language and imitation of activities. I interpreted what I could and Santa listened graciously. People who work with mentally retarded adults are careful not to treat them like children, so I wouldn’t have suggested Dave visit Santa at the mall. But Dave saw Santa as an old friend and greeted him. Santa responded in kind.

Santa spoke slowly and clearly in a hearty, deep voice. Without being condescending, Santa said he knew that Dave had been very good that year. I agreed. Santa said he could always count on Dave to be a gentleman. He sounded as if he had known Dave for years. Dave floated for the rest of the season.

I didn’t know how to tell this man what his greeting meant to us, but there was probably no need; I’m sure he saw my tears. That generous mall Santa gave Dave a precious gift of recognition, welcome and love. It cost him nothing, and took no more than a few minutes. Indeed, he provided an unforgettable example for respecting the dignity of every human being from one moment to the next. I remember it every Christmas. I’m sure Dave does, too.

Originally published as HeroicStories #468 on December 8, 2003

21 thoughts on “Hey, Saa-antaaa!”

  1. I assume this was written years ago? Still as this person cared for “mentally disabled”, not retarded, adults he should have known better.

    • As indicated, the story was first published in 2003, and run without modification. I’m sorry that a politically incorrect term (which, as I recall, was not nearly as non-PC then as now) has distracted you from the story.

      • No, it was definitely not acceptable in 2003 either. My mom worked with mentally disabled adults and I worked at her place of employment in the summer of 1998 and the term used was most certainly mentally disabled. I have to admit I found it jarring too, though it certainly didn’t take away from the sweetness of the story for me.

        • Shame on all of you for missing a simple clue. It was clear from the woman’s writing that she worked with Dave in the seventies and early 80s, well before the 1998 referred to by another commenter as to the politically incorrect use of the “R” word. She may have written the story in 2003, but many people who worked many years prior to that still use terms that were common then, without thinking that they have now become politically incorrect. Let it go and just enjoy the beauty of the story!

      • I was not saying you should have known better, just the worker that sent the story should have known better. Sorry if I did make that clear. I have nothing but the utmost respect for you and what you do!


    • Sorry you are “politically correct challenged” and chose to comment on wording, ignoring what Heroic Stories is all about – that an amazing individual, already giving of himself to be Santa, was so perceptive and made the holiday season for another human being by giving a truly priceless Christmas gift. Incidentally, I don’t believe that the writer, who worked with and had obvious affection for this man, meant any disrespect by the wording used in the story.

      • I agree with what you’re saying Michael… but a “disclaimer” at the beginning of the story might be a good idea. Those of us who are involved in the movement for more appropriate language refering to people with disabilities would really appreciate that…

        The story is wonderful – as I started to read, my first reaction to was one of dismay at “mentally retarded”…. but it’s still a wonderful caring story.

        If you’re interested in sharing a good resource… http://ucp.org/media/tools-for-reporters/

        And there’s also the Spread the Word to End the Word Campaign… http://www.r-word.org/


      • For those of you who are so concerned about being politically correct please take a moment to look at when this story took place. It was in the 1980’s and the writer’s/worker’s language fit the current usage of the time in which it was set. Those of us who used the term back then and worked with mentally challenged individuals did not use the term “mentally retarded” derogatorily, nor did we mean to be disrespectful. That was the correct terminology at that time.

    • I am in my 40s and had a mentally disabled brother. The terms used to describe people with this disability have changed drastically over the years and the changes keep coming more frequently. There was a time when “retarded” was considered to be politically correct (as we say now or “progressive” as was said then”. It was common for them to be referred to as “imbeciles” and “morons”. Remember, that was also considered progressive at one time. Previously, they were considered “cursed” or “witches”. The story was written almost 20 years ago and I can guarantee you that 20 years from now that there will be a new term being used.

  2. Great short story. Glad I signed up when I heard of the site. What took so little to do as stated in the story really made a difference in another persons life. We all get the chance every day to make a difference and its stories like these that keep our spirit uplifted.

  3. That was an awesome story! And Maggie was an awesome co-conspirator… er.. facilitator to help make Santa’s magic come alive in Dave!

    I’m not sure you didn’t meet the real Santa there….

  4. Beautiful story. How much, even today, people still do not know how to deal with or treat our mentally challenged community, but this Santa handled it far better and with much more grace than others would have at that time.

  5. Great story. We should all be so kind to those who seem “different”.
    Usually they are happier than we are, and Santa put the icing on that Christmas cookie for Dave.
    I am sure all who saw the action and reaction between those two was touched on that day…..and hopefully whenever they thought about it afterwards.
    Maybe they were even inspired to do their own facilitating of others,

    Keep those stories coming. We need them…………..

  6. Great story, and thanks for your sensitivity, Steve. When you work so hard to bring us inspiration, I’m sure it is hard to be patient with constructive criticism. Language does matter, and I hope you will decide to update the language when similar situations arise in future. Thanks for all you do!

  7. Just to reiterate, I loved the story and did find it an amazing story. The thing that got to me the most about it was that it was someone that worked with mentally handicapped adults. They of all people know better. Makes me question this person’s whole story. However it was a feel good story with the Santa and gentleman with the handicap. The writer was obviously clueless!

    • Vicki, I’m afraid you are the real problem here not to be rude or impolite but it’s the truth. Many older people use the terminology that was common at the time they are referring to. You may not like it but that’s just the way it is. We have no idea if this woman was still working in the field since terms like retarded became unacceptable. You also need to realize that the term mentally retarded was not derogatory until we chose to make it to derogatory. It meant that they were mentally slow, which is a true statement. Someday the term developmentally disabled will probably also be derogatory because some fool choose to make it so….

  8. I just reread the story and I do not see anything wrong with it.
    Today the “negro race” or black’s as we called them as I was growing up, today want to be called “African Americans”.
    This is the way we change as time moves on.
    I for one read the stories for the enjoyment they give, not to pick them apart because of the way we spoke about certain types of people, years ago.

  9. My grandson has multiple disabilities, including mental. He is not sensitive to the word used to define him, because he is not aware. What does register with him is how people pull back and avoid him because he makes funny noises in place of talking, or because he has skinny legs, or because his face is not like other people’s. On the other hand, some people come up and talk to him or give him a hug. A few people are like the Santa in this story; they respond spontaneously to the person and not the disability. We learn the importance of such kindness best when we have a close family member who we want to experience good moments in life – or when we work or interact with the mentally disabled. The arguments above seem to place more importance on the descriptor than on the person.

  10. Leo, I really appreciate this new incarnation of Heroic Stories. I feel you are doing an excellent job. I am looking forward to the new stories, and am enjoying the previously published stories. Personally, I am glad you did not edit this story or add any disclaimers. We become so involved in trying to be politically correct that we lose sight of the problems. In this story, it is obvious that the writer exhibited a lot of loving and empathy in dealing with his differently abled charge, and in this case people are trying to create a problem where none exists. Keep up your excellent work, Leo.


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