Everyone is familiar with Santa Claus and his famous work at the North Pole, but what most people don’t know is he takes up summer residence in the Cayley area while he relaxes ahead of his busiest time of year.
The Okotokian caught up with Santa in October as he prepared for the Christmas season, which will have his calendar filled with engagements throughout the Foothills and all around the world.
Okotokian: How did you choose to be Santa?
Santa: I don’t know really, I guess I’ve always been that way. When I look at myself in my mirror, with my hair the way it is and my beard the way it is, and I enjoy the sparkle in the eyes of children at Christmas and all year long.
When they see me in the restaurant or somewhere special, they look and they see Santa. Just the other day I was in Southcentre and Mrs. Claus was doing some walking around, and this little boy wandered by and you could tell he had Santa in his eyes. And that happens often.
One day I was riding a horse down in Dutch Creek looking for cattle and this little boy said to his mom, “There goes Santa!” So I went back and talked to him for a while. I was just checking up on him, of course.
Okotokian: Did it take a lot of work to know how to interact with children, or was that something natural for you?
Santa: A bit of both. Some of it was natural, and then I guess I learned some tricks along the way.
Okotokian: What is your favourite part of being Santa?
Santa: It’s a festive season of the year, and children have big dreams and big hopes – the underprivileged and the others. So Santa can bring some joy to them and light up their dreams and their hopes for that magical part of Christmas.
To see that special look in children’s eyes wherever they see it, it’s a mystical thing, it’s a dreamy thing – well, it’s magical.
Children make Christmas. Some adults do as well, because they really truly believe in Santa and what Santa brings to households and to the season.
Okotokian: How busy do you get in November and December each year?
Santa: It depends. Some years it’s very, very busy and it’s too busy for one Santa, so of course there has to be Santa’s helpers to take up space and fill that void.
So I’ve done as much as 215 hours of Santa engagements, and of course when I’m unable to be there then groups like Santa School in Calgary and other individuals take up the space, and they’re busy, too.
Okotokian: Is it easy to become a Santa’s helper?
Santa: I’ve had people say, “Oh, I put on a suit but it didn’t seem to work,” or “I learned there’s a lot more to Santa than putting on a suit.”
And there is, truly, a lot more to it than just putting on a suit. If you don’t become Santa, you don’t embody him, and you’re not in that space, and you’re not carrying that spirit, then it becomes much more challenging.
One has to become Santa, one has to “be” Santa. It’s not a matter of putting on a suit like some of these people do. Through the years I’ve seen lots of Santa helpers who become really good Santa’s helpers, because they really become Santa.
So one has to believe that in themselves, not only in the Christmas season but throughout the year.
Okotokian: Do you have any particularly memorable moments that stick out from over the years?
Santa: I remember when Canada was quite involved in Afghanistan or Iraq, there were lots of our soldiers – men and women – overseas. And a young girl sitting on my knee in a mall and saying what she wanted for Christmas was to have her dad at home. And that tugged at my heart, because wouldn’t it be nice to be able to bring dad home?
Then there are others. A little boy sits on my knee and I ask him what he would like for Christmas, or what’s his hope for Christmas, and he says, “I’d like there to be peace in the world.” And this is coming from a youngster.
There have been all sorts of special moments with children. Each one is individual and special.
I was in Canmore one time for a workshop, actually in the spring of the year, and this little girl was part of a wedding party at this hotel and she stopped at the door with her adult with her, and she wouldn’t leave. So one of the people I was in this meeting with asked her how could she help her, and she said, “I want to talk to Santa.” And I wasn’t even in my suit. So I went and bent down on a knee and spent some time with her, and she was a very special little girl.
She believed, and she saw Santa, and she was not leaving until Santa spoke with her. That seems pretty special to me.
Okotokian: Are all children happy when they get to see Santa in person?
Santa: As they come they’re brave, until they see you’re a person and you actually talk, and you actually talk to them.
But if you have the time to work with them, a lot of them will come around. It’s just to focus it on them and what’s important to them – whether it’s the new shoes or the new dress they’re wearing to see Santa for a picture – then they start to come around and say, “Hey, this Santa guy’s okay. He cares about me. He makes me special.”
Sometimes it’s not so positive, like when the mother wants to get the perfect picture so she can send it back to their home country or relatives and portray a happy child in a happy scene.
Children won’t just smile when we want them to smile. It’s to catch the moment as it is, and if it’s crying, that’s life. But it’s about the natural moments.
Okotokian: Do any of those moments stick out for you?
Santa: Mrs. Claus and I were invited one Christmas to stop at a house on our way to the North Pole because the children were staying with their grandparents, and they knew they were worried Santa wouldn’t know where to bring the presents.
And Santa never knocks. He just enters. And if the door is locked, of course, I have my magical dust.
And we walked in, and the children were totally surprised. The one little girl was about seven or eight, she just stood there. She didn’t move until Grandma said, “It’s okay, you can talk to him, he’s real. He’s here.”
So Mrs. Claus and I went in and we sat there with the family for about an hour and the little guy who was shy all of a sudden was showing me all of his gifts and thanking me and telling me about how this runs and how that runs.
It was a really special time for Mrs. Claus and myself.
Okotokian: Is there anything especially difficult about being Santa?
Santa: One of the things that makes it difficult for Santa is when I know after Christmas they go back to school and to me, every child should receive a gift from Santa. So parents give gifts, but lots of places and households they say those bigger gifts are from Santa, when they’re not always from Santa – they’re from Mom and Dad. So a child goes back to school and says, “I didn’t get very much from Santa because I only got a small gift, and others have big gifts.”
That tugs at my heart because I wish they’d all have the same kind of gift from Santa.
Santa wants to be fair and treat all equal, because I love all the children. They’re all loved equally, it’s not have-nots or the haves who get a greater relationship with Santa.
Really though there are more happy times than sad times, but you do remember the sad times because you wish they could all be happy times.
People are torn, families are torn apart with whatever is going on and they can’t be together for a variety of reasons – military, first responders working over Christmas time, prison guards, nurses, lots of people who won’t be with family.
So how do you make that special for them?
Okotokian: What would you say to people who don’t believe in Santa?
Santa: Well, if you don’t believe in Santa, how can Santa give you a gift?
Someone with a younger brother or sister might say, “Oh, you’re fake.” And I’ll say, “Well, are you fake?” When they say no, I say, “Then what makes you think I’m fake?”
Okotokian: What are some other questions you are asked?
Santa: A question I get asked often is, “How old are you, Santa?” Well, I’m as old as my eyes. And they look at me. “Well, aren’t you as old as your eyes?”
You’ve got to be ready for those unexpected questions.
“How do you get around the whole world in one night and get into our house?” Well, Santa has some very special dust that allows me to do things at that special time of year that lots of others aren’t able to do.
“Where did you leave the reindeer?” Well, I left them at the Calgary airport. There’s a hangar there, they’re put inside, they’re given some hay and fresh water, they can relax.
“Well how did you get here?” A friend loaned me his truck, so I drove here.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Okotokian: What do you do after Christmas Eve?
Santa: After Christmas, with all of our events and Christmas deliveries, I’m a tired Santa. So we have a bit of family time. Our own family is not always at the North Pole or not always down near the Cayley area where I spend some of my time, so we have friends and what family is around together for Christmas.
During the rest of the time, well I just rest up for the next year. It’s a big season.
Okotokian: What does being Santa mean to you?
Santa: It’s about enriching the lives of people in a season of the year in a world which is torn into so many fragments with domestic frays and international frays.
Santa is whatever people try to make of it, I guess.
But it is magic. I’m not going to try to portray that it’s not – it’s the magic spirit of Christmas.
It’s giving people that special hope that things can get better for them or be better for them. They get that little smile on their face and maybe they continue that spirit on.
I’m grateful for the opportunity to be Santa for those special children I’ve touched over the years.
Somehow I was chosen to be Santa, and I am very thankful.