(USA Today) - A tear came to Santa Claus' eye Friday morning as employees at The Empire Mall in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, brought him baskets full of gifts.
He carefully held up each ornament and paged through a book full of Christmas letters, thrilled to see a new set that could fill part of the hole left by the ones he'd lost.
Dale Buxcel has stepped into Santa's shoes for more than two decades at The Empire Mall. Throughout that time he collected every letter he received from children both naughty and nice.
And he was heartbroken to lose those letters along with his home and the rest of his possessions in a November house fire.
"Up until when I had my fire, when my house burned down, I had every Christmas letter sent for 21 years, I never threw one of them away," Buxcel said. "I'd dig them out every year before Christmas and scan through them and they'd get me in the spirit."
As he read through a book of new letters and looked at a bright red mailbox full of new letters, he said, "They kind of replace what I lost."
Mall retailers and managers came together to surprise Buxcel on Friday morning, collecting Christmas decor, gift cards and a fresh set of letters to start his collection anew.
"He has put smiles on kids' faces for so long, so we wanted to give back to him who has given so much," said Dan Gies, the mall's manager.
The retailers also compiled an album of photos of Buxcel and Sioux Falls children who'd come to ask him for toys over the years.
As he pored over the gifts, Buxcel said he was surprised to receive presents rather than give them.
"People in Sioux Falls are like elves, wonderful people," Buxcel said.
The Murdo (South Dakota) Fire Department set up the GoFundMe page to help Buxcel rebuild and replace everything when he comes home after the holidays. They'd raised more than $20,000 as of Friday morning.
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