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Signing Santa

Sonny Cabbage Brings Santa Experience to Deaf Children

Santa Claus brings joy to children the world over.

A lot of factors lend themselves to the jolly man’s appeal, but one important one is his ability as a polyglot – one able to communicate with children in their own language, whether spoken, written, or signed.

For Sonny Cabbage, born deaf, his first experience with Santa didn’t include that easy conversation about what he wanted for Christmas and whether he’d been good.

“My parents and brother are deaf,” he said. “Before my parents took me and my brother to see Santa Claus at a local mall, my mom had us write down what we wanted to get for Christmas on a piece of paper to take to Santa. We sat on his lap, gave him the wish list note, posed for pictures, then received a candy cane in return. That was very much our Santa experience growing up. No communications at all.”

The experience stayed with Cabbage. And around 30 years ago, he got the opportunity to change the narrative for local children.

“A family friend, Jill Muir, who worked at the Idaho Educational Services for the Deaf asked me if I would be interested in being Santa to her students,” he said. “I thought it would be a great opportunity for the deaf kids to experience a Santa Claus that could sign, something I did not have when I was a little kid.”

Since that first foray as Kris Kringle, Cabbage has been donning the red suit and providing a unique Santa experience.

“I have seen probably the whole gamut of reactions with the deaf kids,” he said. “Some are intimidated by being near this old, fat stranger in the weird red suit with white hair and beard, and end up saying nothing or crying. Other kids are so thrilled to see that Santa can sign with them and can’t stop talking. Some are very shy and give only one, two-word answers.

“When I’m being Santa Claus for the deaf kids, I enjoy communicating with them, asking if they were a good/bad kid, what they want for Christmas, etc. I think it means a lot to the deaf kids that they can communicate directly with Santa Claus. I believe that makes Christmas more meaningful to them.” Cabbage added, “I have occasionally had some hearing children of deaf adults (CODA) whose primary language at home is American Sign Language.”

Assisting Cabbage in his Santa duties is the person who first got him into the gig.

“Jill Muir has been my elf all those years,” Cabbage said. “She interprets the dialogue between the deaf child and I for their parents who are usually hearing (no hearing loss) and sometimes for those deaf children who have minimal signing capabilities and rely more on vocal communications.”

The 57-year-old has a lot of communication experience with both deaf and hearing people.

“Growing up deaf in an all-deaf family and in Gooding (where there is a lot of deaf exposure to the general public), I never really felt any different from anybody else, deaf or hearing. Communications with the hearing people was the only speed bump we had to deal with – for us to talk with the hearing people, as well as for the hearing people to talk with us. Everything else, we were all on the same footing.”

When not embodying the cheerful old elf, Cabbage can be found working as an Idaho Power Environmental Analyst, which he’s done for more than 30 years; spending time with his family, and serving on the board at the Idaho Council for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

If you’re interested in visiting “Sonny” Claus, check the Idaho Educational Services for the Deaf website at

“We started out doing the Signing Santa event at the Boise Towne Square mall for several years, but since then we have done it at the elementary schools where there is a deaf program, such as Ponderosa Elementary School in Meridian,” Cabbage said.

As for why Cabbage has continued to pull on his son’s old Halloween costume (for a proper ‘bowl full of jelly’) and the red suit for nearly three decades?

“It never fails to set me in the Christmas mood,” he said. “Sometimes I think I have more fun than the kids. The most important thing to me is that those deaf kids have the opportunity to communicate directly with Santa and have the equal Santa Claus experience as those kids who can hear and see those Santa Clauses at the mall.”