Santa likes the shy kids the best.
They’re the ones, teachers tell him, who won’t open up to strangers. “But when they sit on my lap, they don’t stop signing,” says Sonny Cabbage.
If you believe the legend — and why shouldn’t you — Santa knows every language in the world, including American Sign Language. And this Santa is fluent because he is deaf, too.
When Cabbage was young, he had to write his Christmas wish list on a piece of paper so Santa would know exactly what he wanted. He’d hand Santa the list and get a candy cane. That was pretty much it.
“Santa tried to speak to me, and I never did understand what he was saying,” Cabbage says. The Santa at his mall didn’t speak sign language.
“I just didn’t get the full experience of talking with Santa like the other kids,” Cabbage says.
Now, he makes sure deaf and hard-of-hearing children get to talk with Santa on their terms. They call him Sonny Claus.
More than 20 years ago, Jill Muir, an outreach teacher with the Idaho Educational Services for the Deaf and the Blind, asked Cabbage to be Santa for the preschool and kindergarten children in the deaf and hard-of-hearing program at Ponderosa Elementary School.
Kids in the program, plus family and community members, gather in the cafeteria, where Santa holds court. The kids take turns sitting on his lap. A lot of them are awestruck and shy. Some them sign their wish lists; some of them speak. Muir stations herself where she can interpret speech-to-sign language for Cabbage, and vice versa for hearing attendees.
Leana Tackett-Burns, 9, has faithfully given her Christmas list to Cabbage for four years. “I don’t know the hearing Santa,” she signs. “I can’t hear his voice. With this Santa, I totally understand him because he signs to me.”
And Santa understands Leana. Her face lights up.
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American Sign Language was Cabbage’s first language. It was the only one “spoken” at his home. His parents and his younger brother — along with aunts, uncles and cousins — are also deaf. His mother was a teacher at the Idaho School for the Deaf and Blind in Gooding, and his father was a maintenance man who drove the bus to pick up students in the school.
“Since my whole family was deaf and very active in the deaf community, I grew up feeling normal. I had many friends growing up who could hear, and I never felt any different from them,” he says. “It was just that I couldn’t hear.”
He played football, basketball and ran track for Gooding High School alongside hearing friends. “That was another reason I never felt any different from the hearing kids,” he says.
He met his future wife while playing in a Boise recreational softball league. “Michelle didn’t know any sign language when we first met,” says Cabbage. They communicated by writing for a couple of months before she started picking up ASL.
Cabbage’s co-workers at Idaho Power have picked it up as well. The 53-year-old, a biologist in the environmental affairs department, has worked there for more than 26 years. “A lot of them realized it was much better to learn sign language and talk with me via ASL rather than writing on pen and paper,” he says.
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Being Santa, of course, bears a whole world of responsibility. But there’s an extra twist to Cabbage’s Santa.
“I feel that I am giving back to the deaf kids here by being another deaf adult for the deaf kids to look up to,” he says. “Whether it’s by … being Santa or in my everyday life.”
While everybody looks up to Santa, when he speaks your language — that’s huge.
“You want to see the difference?” says Ed Wong, who calls up a photo on his phone. It’s his daughter sitting on the lap of a non-signing Santa, staring at the camera, totally unengaged. But on this day, he watched his daughter, Leilani, 2, sitting on Sonny Claus’ lap, enamored and signing to him. “It makes all the difference.
“She identifies more with Santa. He makes (Christmas) more real. He makes it more meaningful.”
It’s a role Cabbage takes seriously.
“There was a heart-breaker a couple of years ago,” says Cabbage. It was one of those kids who had really opened up to Santa the year before. “(This little boy) asked me why I didn’t get him gifts the previous year. That threw me for a loop.”
Santa investigated and found that the family couldn’t afford presents. Since Santa can’t let that sort of thing happen, Cabbage, teachers and friends rustled up donations for gifts for everyone in the family.
“That was an extra-special feeling doing that,” Cabbage says.
And Santa is all about that special feeling. “My Christmas spirit … always spikes up after I’ve visited with the deaf kids as Santa,” says Cabbage.
“Before I do the Santa event, I’m always excited and happy about Christmas.” Afterward, he’s “always more happy and 100 percent ready for Christmas. … “I feel more love in the air.”