KNOXVILLE, TENN. - It's a Christmas story from East Tennessee that has gained worldwide attention.
Eric Schmitt-Matzen spreads Christmas cheer year-round and grants wishes as Santa Claus. His long white beard and curled mustache makes him perfect for the part.
He and his wife, who joins him as Mrs. Claus, even went to Santa school six years ago.
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But a month and a half ago, he answered the call to grant what would end up being one child's final Christmas wish.
"He was more concerned about missing Christmas, than dying," Schmitt-Matzen recalled to WBIR 10News.
He said he had just gotten home from work when a nurse at a local hospital called and said there was a very sick 5-year-old boy who wanted to see Santa Claus.
He was at the hospital in about 15 minutes and met the boy's mother and other family members. She handed Schmitt-Matzen a toy to give to her child.
"When I got there, it was my job to make sure he got Christmas," Schmitt-Matzen said.
With this tough task ahead of him, he asked everyone else to leave the room so that he wouldn't break down in tears.
This is how he described what happened next, to a Knoxville News Sentinel columnist:
“When I walked in, he was laying there, so weak it looked like he was ready to fall asleep. I sat down on his bed and asked, ‘Say, what’s this I hear about you’re gonna miss Christmas? There’s no way you can miss Christmas! Why, you’re my Number One elf!
“He looked up and said, ‘I am?’
“I said, ‘Sure!’
“I gave him the present. He was so weak he could barely open the wrapping paper. When he saw what was inside, he flashed a big smile and laid his head back down.
‘“They say I’m gonna die,’ he told me. ‘How can I tell when I get to where I’m going?’
“I said, ‘Can you do me a big favor?’
“He said, ‘Sure!’
“When you get there, you tell ’em you’re Santa’s Number One elf, and I know they’ll let you in.
“He said, ‘They will?’
“I said, ‘Sure!’
“He kinda sat up and gave me a big hug and asked one more question: ‘Santa, can you help me?’
“I wrapped my arms around him. Before I could say anything, he died right there. I let him stay, just kept hugging and holding on to him.
“Everyone outside the room realized what happened. His mother ran in. She was screaming, ‘No, no, not yet!’ I handed her son back and left as fast as I could."
In the days that followed, Schmitt-Matzen was left with uncertainty about whether to continue being Santa.
Looking for reassurance, he shared what he experienced with other Santas.
“They told a story who told the story to somebody who told the story to somebody,” he said.
They continued to share the story and that's how it ended up getting to Knoxville News Sentinel Columnist Sam Venable. His powerful column on this child's final wish was shared thousands of times in a matter of hours.
Since then, Schmitt-Matzen has been overwhelmed with attention and has received more than 3,000 friend requests.
But, it's not the first time he's taken on the incredibly tough task of spreading a bit of Christmas cheer to someone who is dying.
He's now made three visits to terminally ill children and one adult, including the second-ever time he professionally took on the Santa role.
Schmitt-Matzen said someone asked recently what he would have liked to happen differently.
"I'd trade places with the kid...the kid would have been in his mom's arms, not mine. You know, you can't control that," he concluded.
“People don’t know all the things Santas do...All in all, 98 percent of it is fun,” he said.
With all this weighing on Schmitt-Matzen's mind, he made the decision to not hang up the Santa suit because he believes the joy that he brings to kids makes it all worth it.
(© 2017 WBIR)