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Cover Story: Making Christmas

Published December 2023 | In Winter 2024

Holiday magic is hard work. Luckily, Monument Health caregivers Dana Darger and Denny Leibel are up to the task.

Cover Story: Making Christmas Media

When did you first learn the truth about Santa Claus? No, not that truth. The one about Santa’s network of helpers around the world who help him make holiday wishes come true for millions of girls and boys. After all, it’s a big job, and even with a sleigh full of Christmas magic, Santa needs all the help he can get. Dana Darger, RPh, Director of Pharmacy at Rapid City Hospital knows firsthand just how hard Santa’s job can be. There’s hours of work to do, often in the cold, but nobody would ever say it’s a thankless job. “I think being Santa is one of the most gratifying experiences a person could have,” said Dana. “There’s something about Christmas and Santa that helps kids believe in magic.”

“And it makes adults feel like little kids again,” he added with a chuckle.

So how exactly does Dana know about the hard work that Santa Claus puts in? It’s simple — he is Santa Claus. Okay, maybe he’s not The Santa Claus — his driver’s license doesn’t say Kris Kringle, and he doesn’t live at the North Pole — but he’s one of a select few people in the world who have the honor of putting on the red suit and becoming Santa for children of all ages.

Before the suit

It takes more than just putting on a costume to make a person Santa Claus. Sure, anyone can stuff a pillow down their coat and throw on a fake beard, but it won’t take long for kids to see through it. No, there’s more to being Santa than just a fancy costume. It starts with the Christmas spirit, and that starts with a giving heart.

“You know, when my wife and I first got married we were both in college, so we were pretty poor. We made all of our Christmas presents,” Dana shared. A lot has changed since then, and the Dargers are no strangers to buying gifts, but Dana still enjoys making them — a fact that his pharmacy staff could attest to. “When I'm making gifts for someone, I pray for that person and meditate on that person. I'm trying to put them and myself into that gift. I think that’s how Santa makes presents,” Dana said. “I don’t know if I can tell you exactly when I figured out Santa had helpers all over the world, but that’s part of the magic of Christmas. You just have to have a giving heart.”

Making gifts? Check! A giving heart? Check! Throw in his happy, childlike demeanor, positive attitude and white beard, and Dana Darger had all the right stuff to become Santa Claus. All that was missing was that one little nudge toward the red suit — and to learn where that nudge came from, you need to get to know Denny Leibel.

“I think being Santa is one of the most gratifying experiences a person could have. There’s something about Christmas and Santa that helps kids believe in magic."

Dana Darger

 

Partners in shine

Denny Leibel, Pharmacy Business Analyst, works closely with Dana at Rapid City Hospital. Like Dana, he shares a love of Christmas magic, and for him that magic means one thing in particular: lights!

“When I was a kid I was always fascinated with Christmas lights. I remember driving around looking at houses where people had a display and it always brought me joy. Those are. memories I cherish,” Denny said. “So a long time ago, I thought that my ultimate goal was to have that ‘go-to house’ that everybody wanted to go see. I think we've accomplished that for sure.”

Denny isn’t mistaken — for the past 15 years he and his family have put up holiday displays to celebrate the season. “We started small, but for the last five or six years, we’ve exploded.” That’s not an exaggeration. An explosion of light is exactly what you’ll get when you pay his house a visit during the holiday months, but it isn’t a chaotic scene. Quite the opposite, in fact — the entire display is coordinated and organized, from illuminated snowmen to a blinking light show synchronized to Christmas music. Think “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” but with a much better eye for design.

“My wife is the designer and is truly the mastermind at instructing me where things go,” Denny explained. “We’ve got to get things in the right place, and we’ll look at pictures from the year before and put things back where they were if it worked well, or move them if it was a bad spot for them. The first couple of days are the hardest, and it takes a few weeks from start to finish.”

It’s a big endeavor that involves large decorations like a 7-foot illuminated Santa, giant snowmen, hundreds of extension cords, and waterproofing junction boxes. Denny and his family think of Christmas all year round — from dreaming up new features for the display to fixing anything that has broken in the previous season, the Leibels always have the holidays on their minds.

“Sometimes people ask me why we do it, and honestly it’s because I enjoy it,” Denny said. “I love seeing the kids get excited about it. A lot of people think about their lives and wonder what their legacy will be. I guess if my legacy is that I put up a big Christmas display, and created a lot of smiles, I’m happy with that. I can do Christmas.” The centerpiece of the Christmas display is Santa’s chair, where you’ll find Dana, decked out in his red suit, every Friday and Saturday night until Christmas.

Becoming Santa

Dana had all the makings of a great Santa Claus. All he needed was the little push to get him to put on the suit.
It turns out, it was Denny adding Santa’s chair to his winter wonderland that sealed the deal.

“Denny bought the chair after Christmas — it was part of a store’s holiday display — and I asked him what the heck he was going to do with it. Of course he was going to put it in his yard the following Christmas,” Dana said with a chuckle. “I teased him about it for a couple of months, telling him that you can’t have the chair without Santa sitting in it. Then one day I walked past his desk and said, ‘If you’re not going to be Santa, can I?’”

Just like that, it happened — it was all over except for getting the suit. “Honestly I was just teasing him, but something about it resonated with me. It was something that I truly wanted to do.” And if he was going to do it, he was dedicated to doing it right. He had no interest in a cheap Santa suit, many of which were easy enough to find online. “The nicer suits were more expensive, which I had no problem with,” he said, “but I didn’t want to order one and have it arrive only to find it was no good.”

By this time, it was October, and Santa suits were not really a hot commodity. If you’re going to be Santa Claus, however, you can’t be easily deterred. During a family visit to Denver, Dana took some time to visit a costume shop.

“They were in full Halloween mode, but had one Santa suit on the rack. There was just no way it was going to fit, and it wasn’t really what I was looking for,” Dana said. The proprietor suggested that he return after Halloween. “When I told him where I live and that I couldn’t make it back, he asked me to wait a minute. When he came back, he told me, ‘They’re bringing a rack of suits over from the warehouse,’ and not long after they wheeled in a rack with probably 50 suits on it.”

Looking through the rack, Dana found the perfect suit — it was one of the pricier suits he had looked at online, and it was a near-perfect fit. “It’s like it was meant to be. I had already been letting my beard grow out, now I had the suit, and that was my first Christmas at Denny’s,” Dana said.

‘You can’t play Santa’

A little lighthearted teasing between friends had led to something magical, but Dana still had his work cut out for him. After all, if it was easy to be Santa Claus, everyone would do it. “It wasn’t until that first night when I sat down in that chair that I realized that as soon as you put that suit on, you can’t play Santa. You have to be Santa,” Dana explained. It’s his goal to have every kid walk away with hope that they’ll get the Christmas gift that they’ve asked for, but he can’t make any promises. After all, the gift list stays at the North Pole — and Dana has no way to know what parents may or may not be able to get for a child.

“There’s a sacred trust between the kids and Santa. You can’t lie to them, you can’t make something up,” Dana said. “My goal is always to be as real as possible with them, but to give them hope and to help them believe in the magic of Christmas.”

Take for example the girl who asked for a real unicorn — a difficult ask, most would agree. Yet, it would be a shame for Santa Claus to dismiss the girl’s request. After all, if Santa is real, why shouldn’t unicorns exist as well? Dana knew what to do. “I looked at her and I said, ‘You know what, I haven’t seen a unicorn in probably the last 30 years, but if I find one, I'll bring him to your house.’ I wanted to give just a little touch of reality but without destroying hope. I was able to tell her that she probably wasn’t going to get a unicorn, but she could have a little bit of hope that there was some small chance,” Dana explained, “And she walked away believing that there could still be unicorns out there somewhere.”

The Christmas Spirit

It’s been six years since Dana first became Santa Claus, and it has lost none of its joy. For he and Denny, that’s what this is all about — creating a little spark of happiness that kids can carry away with them. “People have asked me if I take donations. I always say no. I don’t want anyone’s money,” Denny said. “I want their smiles. I want them to make memories. People tell me that their new family tradition is coming to my house to see Santa Claus. And if you see how the kids react to Santa, it makes all the work we put into it worthwhile.”

Dana agreed. “Santa can’t guarantee that every boy and girl will get what they asked for, but he can make sure that they walk away with a smile and feeling like I really listened to them, and that I care about them,” he said. “I can spread a little happiness and joy, and I think that’s more meaningful than we grown-ups realize sometimes.”

Regardless of your background, culture or beliefs, Dana and Denny believe that there’s a magic to the holiday season that belongs to everyone. The two have conspired to bring Christmas to life in the Black Hills in a way that makes children and adults repeat a phrase reminiscent of  “Miracle on 34th Street.”

“I believe in Santa Claus.”

Ready to pay Santa a visit?

Head to Denny’s house and check out the Christmas lights any night this holiday season.

Santa will be in attendance every Friday and Saturday night from 6-8 p.m. until Christmas. Bring your smiles, and you’ll get a little holiday magic in return.

You’ll find the amazing display at 4311 Paddock Court in Rapid City.

Santa can’t wait to see you there.

Written by Wade Ellett

Photos by Bob Slocum