It was a true Christmas miracle.
When little Mali felt the tap on her shoulder as she sat on Santa’s knee, her smile said it all.
Aged just three at the time, the little girl struggle to communicate verbally.
But St Nick – known now as Signing Santa on his annual return to the Cleveland Centre in Middlesbrough – knew exactly what to do.
After checking with Mali’s mum, he began to use sign language to communicate with the enraptured little one.
What followed was a tear-jerking moment, reminiscent of the film Miracle on 34th Street, in which Santa and Mali looked at each other and enjoyed a conversation.
A video of the exchange melted the hearts of the public after going viral in 2015 and since then, Signing Santa has grown even more popular.
Between toy-making with the elves, checking his list and getting Rudolph ready for the big day, Father Christmas has returned to the Cleveland Centre every year to meet new children.
And he has a special affinity with our town: “Middlesbrough has a special place in my heart.
“The people always give me a particularly warm welcome, so I look forward to returning every year.
“The moment with Mai will always bring back fond memories. It was a really magical, intimate moment between myself and Mali but I’m delighted that the wider public got to see the footage as it definitely helped spread the magic and spirit of Christmas around the world.”
He’s featured in newspapers and on TV since the incredible encounter, and has become a festive favourite in Middlesbrough too.
“One year, I joined the Wildcats of Kilkenny on stage at Middlesbrough’s Light Switch On event in Centre Square and led the crowd in renditions of some of my favourite Christmas songs,” continued Santa.
“That was a really special night. The people of Boro sure know how to party!”
Signing Santa is back at the Cleveland Centre to meet families on Saturday December 11, and December 18 between 11am and 3pm on both days.
The events are free and every child will receive a complimentary goody bag and professional digital photo that the Centre will upload to its Facebook page to commemorate the meeting.
Cleveland Centre has also launched a dedicated festive website www.ccchristmas.co.uk which has a whole host of free festive fun, including videos with Signing Santa, games with his Elves, a sing-a-long with the Snow Queen, downloadable Christmas-themed activity sheets and much more.
Cleveland Centre manager Graeme Skillen said: “With his celebrity status, Signing Santa has offers from all around the world to hold similar ‘meet and greet events’ with his fans but he has a particular affinity with Middlesbrough and the Cleveland Centre and so we’re delighted that he’s with us once again.”