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Deacon Bill Dickson’s
Santa Ministry

[ Feature 1 Photo]
Deacon Bill Dickson, shown with Logan Link, says his Santa job "is the most emotionally and spiritually difficult yet satisfying thing I do all year."


When Deacon Bill Dickson vests in a Santa Claus suit for his ministry to preemies and their families in a Nashville hospital, his emotional involvement is as real as his beard.

Text by Joan Anderson, photos by Rick Musacchio

 Santa's Identity Revealed

Preparing for the Job

Focus on Preemies

 Satisfying Job

 Facing Reality

PEOPLE SAY that pregnant Jewish women carry their unborn children with such pride because they believe they may be carrying the Messiah. In the Christian world, the celebrated birth of Jesus—the Christ, the Messiah—was prophesied by Isaiah:

"For a child is born to us, a son is given us;
upon his shoulder dominion rests.
They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero,
Father-Forever, Prince of Peace" (9:5).

Most families await the birth of their child with the same joy that Mary and Joseph felt. They expect their child to grow strong in body and spirit. They assume that their offspring will work, love and be a blessing. So it is with alarm that a woman in early labor gives birth to an underweight (below five pounds) and underdeveloped child. Suddenly the hopes and dreams for the child and the family seem fragile, wrapped as they are in such a tiny, frail body.

Some of those tiny babies are fortunate to be born at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee. Vanderbilt has a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) that treats underweight babies.

In 1961 and 1962, internationally known Vanderbilt physician Mildred Stallman was doing research on low-birthweight infants. She engineered the first infant respirator (later called "incubator"). She also set up the first medical ward for working with premature infants, who are called "preemies."

Now at Christmastime, the NICU at Vanderbilt is abuzz with the news that Santa Claus will be coming to pay a special visit to all the preemies. Yes, that jolly old elf, an American cousin twice removed from St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children, visits the NICU during December. As Santa holds each infant in his hands, a photographer takes a picture. Each family gets a copy to keep.

Santa's Identity Revealed

O.K., really, who is this Santa?

His name is Bill Dickson, and he takes his Santa job seriously. "I see this as a part of my ministry as deacon, a symbol for little children of what doing good is supposed to be about," says Dickson.

Dickson, a member of St. Anne Parish in Nashville, was ordained a deacon in 1980. With his corporate and management background, he has worked with the chancellor and finance board of the Nashville Diocese. And he has participated in social-justice and interfaith activities.

Photographers Kacky Fell (left) and Phil Hatcher enjoy snapping shots of Santa and Markeith Porter at Vanderbilt Medical Center.


In addition to the Vanderbilt NICU, Bill Dickson shows up as Santa Claus at a day-care center, a retirement facility and a local YMCA.

"One thing that impresses me is how tiny babies are clearly human beings."

Deacon Bill Dickson

How did he change from deep-voiced deacon to Santa Claus? "My wife and I are in a water exercise class at the YMCA," he explains. "Six years ago, I got to know a retired Presbyterian minister and his wife in the exercise class. During a break the wife, a nice lady, paddled up to me. She asked, 'Are you willing to be Santa in a day-care center run by Kings Daughters?'" The children at the center were kindergarteners from single-parent families living in subsidized apartments across the street.

"I don't have a Santa suit," Dickson told her. "And what happened to the guy who used to do it?"

"He died," the woman said as she paddled away.

A year later, when Dickson was a deacon at St. Patrick Church, a woman in the choir asked him, "Would you be willing to be Santa for the preemies at Vanderbilt?"

He says, "By that time my wife had made me a suit. I asked the woman, 'What happened to the guy who used to do it?' She said, 'He died.' So now I know I have my terminal job. I'm 74. I feel comfortable saying that."

Preparing for the Job

Although Bill Dickson is a father, grandfather and great-grandfather, he had no experience with preemies. His wife accompanied him that first year at Vanderbilt, which proved wise. "I couldn't have gone through it by myself because of the emotional strain," he says.

Walking into the NICU is an experience in germ awareness. Signs on the wall read, "Hand washing required before infant contact." Typically there are about 48 babies split between rooms labeled "NICU I & II" and "NICU Intermediate." Shifts of 20 nurses around the clock monitor the preemies' IV's, skin color, breathing, eating and eliminating patterns, and weight gain. For preemies up to two pounds, nurses use diapers that are so small they also fit an average-size baby doll.

The Santa tradition was started by Dr. Mildred Stallman. "She spoke to me about the tradition," says Dickson. "The early Santas had fake beards, but I let mine grow in September so that I would have a natural one."

Focus on Preemies

On the day Dickson becomes Santa at Vanderbilt, the NICU floods with parents, siblings, employees, photographers and news cameras. "I am the background," explains Dickson. "I tell them, 'Get as good a picture of the babies as you can.' The pictures are appropriate for the season, scheduled close to Christmas because on the other side some babies may not be alive."

The nurses prepare little blankets and hats to cover up the tubes that are attached to the preemies. The photo session takes about two and a half hours, as Santa goes from baby to baby. Sometimes Dickson involves siblings and parents in the picture, especially if the baby is strong enough to be held.

Dickson takes instruction from a nurse on how to interact with each preemie. "Sometimes I sit in a rocking chair. I've held twins who were healthy enough, one in each arm. Some I can hold, even though they are still connected to equipment. Sometimes I only slip my hands under them and position them for the camera. Some are still in incubators so I position myself in the pictures."

On Christmas Eve the NICU posts pictures of Santa with each of these babies, who are new gifts to the world. The families are proud and grateful, says Dickson.

Santa cuddles Jacquelyn Little with support from the preemie's mom, Sharon Little.


"One thing that impresses me is how tiny little babies are clearly human beings," he says. "The tiniest one in 1997 was one pound and two ounces. Once I asked if there were crack babies and HIV-positive babies. Yes, I was told. I don't ask what the problems are of each individual. These are tiny babies being cared for in the best possible way."

His emotional involvement in this ministry is obvious. "It is exciting," he says. "One girl who was a preemie and is well into her teens comes back every year to visit."

Satisfying Job

But the job of being Santa is not all fun and games. Dickson's greatest sorrow, he says, happens after he leaves every year. "We are talking about very expensive medical procedures. I think of all the poor babies in the world who have none of this care and attention.

"Sometimes I hold a baby who is very ill. I ask myself, if I were the grandfather, would I want this child to live? And I say no. But then I say, 'Good Lord, help them, please.' It is up to him."

Dickson says the day he is Santa at the hospital "is the most emotionally and spiritually difficult yet satisfying thing I do all year. I look forward to it. It is always interesting to see the pictures afterward and to hear the comments of appreciation, not to me but to Santa Claus.

"Going along with that is my feeling about St. Nicholas—I believe in saints. I am doing what I ought to be doing and am getting extraordinary help from angels and the spirit of God. When people are going down a ski slope, when everything is right, you sense it. It is that kind of feeling. It is not just a human being holding those preemies. If I had to handle it in a purely human way, I couldn't do it."

Facing Reality

Sometimes these tiny babies die. "I know they do," says Dickson. "Looking at them, holding them, you clearly know some of them aren't going to make it. That's God's work. I'm independent of it. For some who have been born with terrible difficulties, I don't feel bad about death because they will pass on to another situation where they will be nurtured and cared for.

Jacob Brown is one of Santa's littlest helpers in Vanderbilt's Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.


"Every one is a little human potential," he says. "Every one is unique. They look different, they act different. Nurses do not handle them in a routine way. They know their names and their parents' names."

Dickson gives each of these infants special care. "My concern in physically handling them is not to do anything that will injure them. I was told that I talk to the babies all the time, something I didn't realize. I try to get them to open their eyes."

He believes he is a link, that the Holy Spirit is there in the NICU. He says that "these tiny figures who are vulnerable, who need care, emphasize the interdependence of the community and the responsibility of everyone to help them in any way they can."

Interdependence: It's not a bad Christmas message.

Premature infants may be coming from behind, but God has a plan for them, a welcome into the world like the one penned by composer Aleksandr Scriabin: "The universe resounds with the joyful cry, 'I am.'"


Joan Anderson works at Project Reflect Education Programs in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a member of the Cathedral of the Incarnation. She writes on family, community and faith topics. Rick Musacchio is the editor of Tennessee Register, the diocesan newspaper of Nashville, and is a photographer who formerly worked for The Tennessean.



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