Real Life

Update: Doubts cast over viral Santa Claus story

Santa Claus impersonator Eric Schmitt-Matzen said a terminally ill boy died in his arms. The heartbreaking story made headlines all over the world.

Update 15/12:

We’re not ashamed to admit we bawled our eyes out reading (and reporting!) the story of the little boy dying in Santa Claus impersonator’s arms.

Eric Schmitt-Matzen’s account of a 5-year-old child being granted his last wish to meet Santa was absolutely heartbreaking.

The tragic story was first picked up by local paper The Knoxville News Sentinel then was picked up by news outlets all over the world from CNN to The Huffington Post.

And Eric was applauded for his poignant description and for being a wonderful and professional Santa.

However, some news outlets are now calling his tale into question, having spoken to all hospitals near his home to be told there are no records of the child.

The Knoxville News Sentinel said they could no longer verify the account. In a story posted Wednesday afternoon by News Sentinel editor Jack McElroy, the paper said it “has done additional investigation in an attempt to independently verify Schmitt-Matzen’s account. This has proven unsuccessful.

“Although facts about his background have checked out, his story of bringing a gift to a dying child remains unverified. The News Sentinel cannot establish that Schmitt-Matzen’s account is inaccurate, but more importantly, ongoing reporting cannot establish that it is accurate.”

“Therefore,” he wrote, “because the story does not meet the newspaper’s standards of verification, we are no longer standing by the veracity of Schmitt-Matzen’s account.”

Outlets like The Daily Mail and The Washington Post tried to get verification from all the hospitals near his home but they couldn't get any record of the events described either.

Mr Schmitt-Matzen is unfazed by the fakery claims howerever, telling The Washington Post: “If some people want to call me a liar . . . I can handle that better than I can handle a child in my arms dying. It's sticks and stones.”

Original story 13/12:

Eric Schmitt-Matzen, from Knoxville, Tennessee, is a very convincing Santa Claus impersonator. Eric delights hundreds of children by pretending to be jolly Saint Nick, making about 80 appearances a year.

So when he was called by a nurse and asked to appear at the bedside of a terminally ill child, the professional impersonator didn’t think twice about making the little boy’s dreams come true and headed straight to the hospital.

Only it was to become the most tragic visit of his life as the five-year-old he was visiting died in his arms when he was granted his wish of meeting Santa.

Mr Schmitt-Matzen, 60, told USA Today he met the child’s mother and several family members, before going to the child’s bedside.

“She’d bought a toy from [the TV show] PAW Patrol and wanted me to give it to him,” he said. “I sized up the situation and told everyone, ‘If you think you’re going to lose it, please leave the room. If I see you crying, I’ll break down and can’t do my job.’ ”

So Eric entered the intensive care unit by himself, intent on giving the little boy a lovely surprise:

“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.”

The exchange then took a heartbreaking turn:

‘“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 favour?’

“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 realised 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.”

Eric said he “cried all the way home” after meeting the little boy. The army veteran said, “I was crying so hard, I had a tough time seeing good enough to drive.”

But Eric is determined to keep making children’s dreams come true.

Eric with his wife Sharon, who impersonates Mrs Claus.
Eric with his wife Sharon, who impersonates Mrs Claus.

He told the BBC he’s visited terminally ill children on their deathbeds four times.

"The little guys and girls have a hard time fathoming the whole concept of death, but they know Christmas and they know they have a lot of fun" he told the BBC.

"He [the boy in the latest case] was more concerned about missing Christmas than he was about dying. All he knew was he didn't feel good."

Talking about visiting sick children specifically, he said: “If somebody calls I'll do it. It hurts, but I'll do it."

Our deepest condolences go out to the little boy’s family.

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