In 1981, Jim Nentwig drove his three teenage boys into a Boston hospital on Christmas Day to see their mother, who was dying of cancer.
There was a Christmas tree in the room and presents. They were joined by a friend, who dressed as Santa Claus. Together, the visitors made the rounds of all the patients in that small section of Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Two months later, 40-year-old Elizabeth Nentwig died.
That was 31 years ago.
Yesterday, Nentwig, a 76-year-old Boxford resident, and his three adult sons returned to Brigham and Women’s on Christmas Day to bring flowers and presents to 400 patients.
Just as they have for the past 31 years.
But that was not the only stop for Santa’s Magic, as the homespun Christmas charity is now called.
Eight teams, all with a Santa and a half-dozen elves, also made stops at the Soldiers’ Home in Chelsea, the Department of Veterans Affairs’ hospital in West Roxbury and a dozen veterans’ residences on the North Shore. Nentwig and his sons all served in the Army.
They brought hundreds of poinsettias and gifts — handmade Afghans, bathrobes, slippers, shirts, hats and much more. When they stopped at private homes, they came with roast beef, chickens and hams.
Santa’s Magic rode off early Christmas morning and assembled in teams at each site. After one group of volunteers made an initial visit to see what a patient needed, Santa made his entrance followed by elves with a gift from Santa’s bottomless bag of presents.
Over the years, Nentwig, a retired vice president from John Hancock, has amassed about 100 volunteers. So many want to help, he has to turn people away. They come once and want to come back every year.
Some are police officers, many friends of his son, Tom, a Boxford police officer. Some know or are related to his other sons, Robert and Christopher.
One Santa is a doctor — Dr. Barry Burrows, an obstetrician at Beverly Hospital. One of Burrows’ elves is a woman he delivered 20 years ago.
Brian McCarthy is another Santa. He’s the CEO of Energi, a Peabody insurance company where Nentwig works part time. McCarthy visits patients, then jumps on a plane with his family and flies to Florida for Christmas dinner.
Dressing as the jolly man in the red suit has led to experiences that Nentwig never imagined.
“Through my 31 years, I’ve been asked to stay three times by somebody when they expired,” he said. “I held hands with a person who died in the same room my wife passed away in.”
Santa’s Magic is supported by a legion of volunteers.
In addition to all of Santa’s helpers, there are businesses that give food, flowers, trucks, gifts — too many to mention.
There are a few special, or unusual, givers. Toomey’s Cleaners in Lynnfield cleans and stores all the Santa suits. Golden Shears, a hair salon in Peabody, gets all of Santa’s beards in shape. Nunan’s, a Georgetown florist, donates hundreds of poinsettias.
Unlike some other Christmas charities, Santa’s Magic visits largely adults, including many veterans and elderly. But age doesn’t seem to matter on Christmas Day.
“There’s something magical about Santa,” Nentwig said. “I don’t care what age you are. It represents safety, security, your childhood ...”
It can be a powerful experience — even for Santa.
“All of the Santas are (executives),” he said. “They take it very seriously. They get caught up in it and the good feeling for what they’re doing. It can get very emotional. It’s a good thing they’ve got a beard on.”