Proud parents across North Texas will send Christmas cards to friends and family this holiday season, but one local family's photo with Santa has traveled much farther than expected.
Last week, Misty Wolf of Watauga posted photos on social media of her son, Matthew Foster, 6, who is blind and has autism, meeting an especially caring Claus at the Fort Worth location of hunting and fishing retailer Cabela's. Her record of their encounter has since been "liked" more than 207,000 times on Facebook. And, it has been shared by supporters from around the world.
"Matthew rarely has a real conversation," Wolf said in a phone interview. "Most people can't get through to him, but Santa gained his trust right away."
Santa — who goes by James Langley and lives in McAlester, Okla., most of the year — has been donning a red suit off-and-on for 48 years. He was in the 10th grade the first time he was asked to fill in as St. Nick during a Christmas parade in his native Alabama. He didn't want to at first, he says, until his football coach offered him cash.
"Well, $10 was a lot of money in 1970," he recalls, with a laugh. "For a 426 HEMI ... that was a tank of gas."
If at first he didn't see himself as the Santa type, the identity stuck.
He's performed the role overseas during his service in the U.S. Army and beneath the flashing lights of a fire truck during holiday toy deliveries to at-risk children in the Appalachian foothills. The first time you put on the suit, you know if it's for you or not, he says. If so, you'll keep doing it as long as you can.
In other words, Langley has a lot of experience with the gig. And — as fate would have it — he is, himself, the parent of an adult child with special needs. So, it comes as no surprise that he was just the Santa that Matthew needed.
Matthew hadn't been particularly interested in Christmas previously, Wolf says, but throughout this year, Clement Clarke Moore's "A Visit from St. Nicholas" has been one of his favorite stories. So, when he showed curiosity toward a dancing Santa toy during a recent trip to Home Depot, she felt it was time to give a traditional Santa photo another shot.
Like most children — and especially those with sensory and social differences — Matthew thrives best with routine, and Wolf knew this outing to Cabela's might involve a meltdown. When they made it to the front of the line, she quietly explained Matthew's differences, and Langley responded, "Say no more."
He immediately struck up a rapport with Matthew and suggested he touch his soft coat, describing that they were both wearing red. He asked if there were anything else Matthew wanted to feel, and the boy said, "Your eyes that twinkle," a reference to Moore's poem.
"I just stood there with my mouth open," Wolf recalls.
She found herself so touched by Langley's patience and willingness to dote on Matthew, she wrote up a quick Facebook post about the kindly Santa to share online with her friends and family. She never expected it to go viral — and that has been overwhelming. The notifications haven't stopped for days.
But, the post's popularity did give Wolf an opportunity to connect again with Langley. He says she apologized over and over for any inconvenience the attention may have caused him.
"I just told her this means God has a plan for it," Langley says. He says the entire crew at Cabela's wants every child to have an experience as magical as Matthew's visit.
Being Santa, he says, is a way of spreading love.
"I plan on doing it until the day my toes turn up," he adds, laughing.
Correction, Dec. 11, 2018: Our story originally listed Matthew Foster's name incorrectly in photo captions. We apologize for the error.
More warm and fuzzy feelings...
Check out our holidays hub for more festive coverage.