Here's something we're not in the habit of saying very often: Hide this newspaper.
Parents, we mean, and from your kids, because this is a Christmas tale about Don Schaefer, a seasonal actor who plays one of the toughest, coolest, most satisfying roles there is.
For about 10 years, Schaefer has been portraying the yuletide season's main man at private homes and at such events as corporate parties and club gatherings, as well as at The Magical Forest at Opportunity Village, where his audience includes students from some of the most at-risk of the valley's at-risk schools.
Schaefer, 68, originally is from California and spent 31 years as an officer with Bank of America. After retiring in 1999, he moved to Las Vegas.
As it turns out, Schaefer comes from a long line of Santa Clauses. For a generation or two, "it's sort of been a tradition in my family that somebody does Santa Claus," he says. "My dad did it for 20-some years."
But that was mostly for friends and family. Schaefer is the first professional Santa in his family's ranks, a promotion he earned after a club to which he belonged asked him to do the honors. He happily accepted, loved it, and now makes it a point to block out November and December each year for Santa gigs both paying and volunteer.
Once, Schaefer even played before an international audience. During a four-year stint in Thailand for Bank of America -- he served as an executive on loan to Bangkok Bank -- Schaefer appeared as Santa in a TV commercial for a shopping mall. The spot's premise saw Santa's reindeer lost and Santa ultimately having to use a Brahma bull to pull his sleigh.
In 1999, Schaefer began volunteering at The Magical Forest, Opportunity Village's annual yuletide fundraiser. About four years ago, he became the attraction's morning-shift Santa, meeting with school groups and kids, including kids who visit through Cheyenne's Magical School Bus Tour program, which provides field trips to the forest for students at at-risk schools throughout the valley.
"It's a fun time for me," Schaefer says between blizzards of kids on a recent weekday morning. "As you can see, kids come here and their eyes light up.
"I find that a lot of the at-risk school kids when they come, they don't ask for outrageous things. I have found, this last year in particular, kids coming up and saying, 'Please, may I have ... ?' and not, 'I want ....' That's a major difference."
Nor, Schaefer says, do the children ask for extravagant gifts. "It's, 'Santa, can we please have a Christmas tree in our house?' It really tugs at your heart. I've had little kids come up and ask for a (toy) truck or a car, and they've said, 'But if you can't get it for me, can you get it for my baby brother?'
"You're getting children who appreciate the little things -- shoes, clothes. We had one little boy who wanted a shirt and some socks. Nothing major. So the school program, I think, is wonderful."
From his behind-the-beard vantage point, Schaefer witnesses every flavor of kids' reactions to seeing Santa. On this particular morning, a kid -- who earlier had seemed excited about meeting the big guy -- begins to cry when it's his turn. All it takes is a bit of gentle coaxing from Schaefer to encourage the boy to approach shyly, talk to Santa and, then, resist leaving when the visit is over.
Schaefer listens carefully to each child's Christmas desires but is careful to make no promises. "You want a car?" he says to one child. "Santa will see what he can do for you."
Schaefer even is adept at getting parents to play along, stepping up to Santa's throne to sit on his lap, pose for a family photo and becoming, themselves, part of a family Christmas memory-in-the-making.
Schaefer asks one child whether Mommy has been good. "She's been smoking," the child answers.
"Oh my goodness," Schaefer responds. "Mommy should try to quit smoking."
"Tell me about it," Mommy says ruefully.
Schaefer's voice is as deep as Santa's voice should be, but gentle, too, flowing in a leisurely cadence that sounds like a lullaby. Every child receives Santa's thanks for visiting and his sincere wishes for a merry Christmas.
"Somebody once told me that when you put on your red suit, you've got to remember you're more recognizable than the president of the United States or a basketball superstar like Michael Jordan or a rock star," Schaefer says.
"You really have to sort of allow yourself, not to be egotistical, but to assume the role. These children believe in you, and when you see all these little kids, their eyes become alive. I am real to them, so I really become who I say I am. I believe."
Actually, Santa Claus is a multidimensional, complicated, character to portray. "You're (advice columnist) Ann Landers," Schaefer says. "You're a psychologist. Whatever."
Not to mention a master of improvisation. A couple of years ago, when one young girl and her mom came up, Schaefer asked the girl what she wanted for Christmas.
"She said, 'I want my dad.' And right away you run through all sorts of scenarios -- divorce or whatever -- and her mom leaned over and said, 'Her father was killed in Afghanistan.' The mother started crying, I started crying, and we're there holding each other. And the daughter, she just asked for her dad. What do you say?"
Just a few weeks ago, Schaefer says, "I had a little girl with the same type of scenario. She said she wanted her dad to come home. I thought, well, he's a serviceman overseas. She says, 'He's in jail, Santa.' She says, 'Actually, Santa, he's in prison because he beat somebody up.'
"So, right away, I say, 'You write to your daddy, and you tell him you love him and you tell him you miss him and you hope he'll come back and join you soon.' So, again, you're changing your hats. You learn to, I don't know, go with the punches.
"But, to me, this whole thing is magic, and I truly believe that whatever moves the children moves me. It's not something you can script."
There is, of course, the occasional disbeliever. Then, Schaefer says, "it's trying to make them understand that, yeah, I'm not real in the sense that I'm not a real Santa Claus, but it's in your heart, and if it isn't in your heart that you keep Santa Claus alive at Christmas ... Christmas loses a lot of its meaning."
One girl this year didn't even want to take a photo with Santa. "Her mom said, 'She doesn't believe in Santa Claus,' " Schaefer recalls. "She stood there and wouldn't sit.
"I said to her: 'You know I'm not the real Santa Claus. I'm a helper.' And I said to her, 'Do you know where Santa lives?' I pointed to her heart. I said, 'Santa lives inside you, and unless you believe that, this has no meaning for anybody.' I said, 'It's a time to give, not receive.' "
"And we talked two or three minutes, but it was funny," Schaefer says. "By the time we finished, she got up here and took a picture with me."
Contact reporter John Przybys at jprzybys@review journal.com or 702-383-0280.