For many people of the Jewish faith, Christmas is a day for movies and takeout, but for Cherry Hill’s Dr. Joe Hassman and his family, it’s one they look forward to every year.
It’s also a day some sick children and their families look forward to as a break in their complicated lives.
For a quarter century, Hassman dressed in the classic red suit each Christmas morning and lent his outsized personality to playing Santa Claus at the Ronald McDonald House of Southern New Jersey in Camden.
“I didn’t like dressing up as Santa, I loved it,” the doctor said.
Before doing so at Ronald McDonald House, Hassman — who built a career as a family physician in several south Jersey locations — also played the role of Father Christmas for years at local nursing homes.
“From what I understand, years ago, he was kind of ‘volunteered’ for it at nursing homes and such,” said Dr. David Hassman, a son of Joe’s who followed him in the family business. “But as time went on, he saw Ronald McDonald House and contacted ‘Teddy’ (founder, President and CEO Ann Thomas), and he started volunteering there about 25 years ago and has done it ever since.
“For at least the last 20 years, our family has gone to RMHSNJ to serve. It has done a wonderful job of providing the whole experience for the kids.”
Each year, Dr. Hassman and his extended family would go to the house with all the ingredients needed to make breakfast and feed families staying there.
“He said to me that he dressed up as Santa every year, and though we did our best to make the holidays special for the kids and their parents, we didn’t actually have Santa come on Christmas,” Thomas explained. “At the time he had a red car, too. All the kids showed so much excitement waiting for him to come each year.
“In anticipation of the season, we wrap gifts for everyone who’s staying here, and address them from Santa to every family. It’s grown every year since we started; we have music and things to entertain and keep it light. Santa comes on Christmas morning.
“It’s gotten to be such a big thing, and anticipated thing, that many kids are coming back to visit even after they aren’t living here.”
As Dr. Joe is now in his 80s, it was time to pass on the tradition to the younger generation. Last month, for the first time, grandson and Cherry Hill resident Corey Hassman donned the famous Christmas costume to deliver smiles at a packed house.
“He was a big part of why we do this every year,” David Hassman said of his son. “For him, it’s always been the thing to do each Christmas, going to the house and providing all the joy for the kids there.
“We’ve rearranged vacations around this each year, making sure we were able to do this. He’s close to my dad and it was a way for both of them to stay connected. My father lives down in Florida from six months to a year now, and he was the one who brought it up to my son to keep the tradition alive.”
David Hassman, who has served on the RMHSNJ board for the past eight years, said he was moved by seeing his son take on his father’s role, even though there was some trepidation on the former’s part. He could tell Corey loved being at the house and seeing the kids’ faces light up while in Santa’s presence.
“It is what it is because of her — not just on the physical side, but in regards to how many volunteers there are and the various programs,” Hassman said of Thomas. “She has always been the consummate leader and has produced so many beautiful achievements there.”
For more information about the Ronald McDonald House Southern New Jersey, visit: https://ronaldhouse-snj.org/