Bursting with unbridled excitement and anticipation, youngsters adorned in their finest outfits wait for a signal from the guy all dressed in red.
Suddenly, with a wave of welcome or a nod of his head, Ol’ St. Nick invites the next child in line at Willowbrook Shopping Centre to come up for a visit and photos with Santa.
Finally, it’s their turn, and much like a racehorse breaking free at the starting gate, once given that signal that child usually doesn’t wait for a parent’s or grandparent’s consent. Instead, they bolt forward, their eyes typically growing wider and smiles getting bigger as they approach.
Those who have been there before are anxious to cram in a year’s worth of stories, their wishlists, and the ceremonial picture taking into what they know will only be their few minutes with Santa.
“To see their faces, so filled with excitement, so animated… it warms your hole heart,” Santa told the Langley Advance.
For those who are new, or (because of age) might not recall their last visit with Santa, they, too, are excited – but often equally hesitant. Santa sees it as his job to quell any fears.
For nine hours a day, running Nov. 14 to Dec. 24, the jolly elf sits on his bench in the centre of the Langley mall and visits with literally 10,000 children a season who climb up on his knee for hugs, pictures, and a few shared secrets.
“It’s the expressions on children’s faces when they’re talking to Santa and they have his undivided attention… that’s the magical moment,” he said.
St. Nick is not always too sure how the visit it going to work out.
But nothing brings a smile to his face as much as sitting and chatting with children, and answering the myriad of questions that getting thrown at him throughout the season.
For instance, why do you fly in a helicopter? Because reindeer don’t like the rain – they prefer snow, Santa replied, explaining that as long as he looks right into a child’s eyes, any doubt quickly dissipates.
“Give them a logical answer, in their terms, and everything is good,” he added.
Why doesn’t Mrs. Claus come with him? Because she’s at home baking cookies and taking care of the elves, who need strict supervision.
What are your favourite kinds of cookies? That’s easy, Santa said, any cookies made with love.
Why do you have a beard? Because it’s so cold in the North Pole and Santa needs a beard to keep his face warm.
Are you real?
Santa replies, “I’m as real as my beard. Give it a tug.”
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CAPTION: Four-year-old Kaitlin Wilson of Walnut Grove was captivated by Santa. She and her six-year-old sister, Alivia visit with the jolly ol’ elf at WIllowbrook Shopping Centre recently.
A few funny requests
One of the most humorous visits for Santa came just a few years back, when a six-year-old boy climbed on his knee and pleaded for four rolls of duct tape for Christmas. Naturally, Santa was curious, and asked why.
The youngster was quick to explain. He wanted to wrap up his little brother and send him away.
Needless to say, that boy may have begun doubting there was a Santa, because he never received the duct tape. But in actuality, St. Nick said with a smile, it was Christmas magic that ensured that little boy’s wish didn’t come true.
Santa also remembers, again just a few years back, a four-year-old boy insisting he wanted a chainsaw for Christmas.
Perplexed and a bit concerned by the request, St. Nick spoke with a parent. Turns out Dad and Pappa were clearing their property with chainsaws, and the youngster wanted to be part of it. Again, that little boy’s wish didn’t come true. There was no chainsaw found under the Christmas tree with the boy’s name on it.
Facing difficult realities
There are also a few tough realities Santa has to face, and visiting with people in the mall day after day leading up to Christmas helps drive home those facts.
The first, he said, is the realization that there are more and more local families struggling to make due.
“I honestly believe there are people in this community, the only Christmas they’re going to get is the minutes they sit with me on the set,” Santa told the Advance.
One child asked him for a pillow and blanket before, explaining that she didn’t have her own.
Secondly, Christmas is becoming too commercial and less about spending time with family and loved ones.
That’s why setting up for visiting in the mall is so important, he said. It typically helps bring families back to the magic of the holiday, the simple joys of season, and the chance to capture just a snapshot of time where that magic is still alive and well.
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Sick kids always hard to face
One of the hardest moments is meeting with a sick or dying child, and Santa has had a few such heart-wrenching encounters through the years.
For instance, he received a request while visiting Phoenix several years back. A dad came in asking Santa to visit his 16-year-old son, who was not expected to survive through Christmas.
Since the reindeer were in the North Pole, Santa needed transportation, but otherwise said he was happy to oblige.
“The hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life was to talk to this young man,” Santa recounted. “He knew I was there. He knew it was Santa.”
Word came a few days later that the boy had passed, but his family was eternally grateful to St. Nick for bringing such joy to their son’s final days.
“You get to the stage where you can read some kids faces,” he said, recounting an encounter with a very pensive seven-year-old boy.
Turned out the little gaffer needed surgery to remove a cyst on his spin. He wasn’t worried about the surgery, but he was concerned about how Santa was going to find him, if he didn’t get home from hospital in time for Christmas.
Reaching into his bag, Santa pulled out a bell from his sleigh and handed it to the little boy. The little boy’s eyes lit up, as Santa asked him to keep it safe.
Ring it when you get to the hospital, Santa explained, to let him know he’d arrived. Then, when he got home from hospital, Santa asked him to ring it again to ensure he and the reindeer would know where he was.
The little boy complied. And unbeknownst to the lad, his father visited Santa again after the surgery, and asked if the jolly ol’ elf if he could personally stop in for a visit and deliver a pair of white sneakers the youngster had requested. He wanted nothing more than to recover and get back to running everywhere.
Again, Santa needed a little help with transportation, but otherwise he was happy to oblige.
Recalling the encounter, he’s never seen a smile so large on any youngster as the one on that little boy when he saw Santa walk into his bedroom, where he was convalescing.
“It really touches your heart and makes you want to do it again,” St. Nick said, hearing later the boy still has that bell.
It’s not always youngsters who come in search of Santa.
Visitors of all shapes and fur types
Just a few days ago, a 40-year-old woman came up, shrieking with excitement from beginning to end of their visit.
“I’ve never seen that much excitement in anyone in all my life,” he said, quick to admit to curious kids that he’s 472 years old with too many elves to count.
Likewise, he’s had strapping young men – those who pretend to be tough non-believers – suddenly transform when they sit with Santa to get pictures they can send home to Mom.
And, every season Santa has a few sceptical old grannies climb up on his knee for pictures, too.
With a wink, Santa explained how they always leave – after some friendly banter – with hugs, smiles, and renewed belief. That, however, is a tidbit St. Nick asks not be shared with Mrs. Claus.
While he takes time out to do special session with children living with autism, and invites people to bring their pets in for photos, the most amusing critters he’s ever encountered – besides his own reindeer – have been a trio of quizzical ferrets, two bowls of goldfish, and a pair of geckos.
The one thing all his visitors seem to share, regardless of age, is a belief in the magic of Christmas and that a visit with Santa can help rekindle that spirit during the holidays.
CAPTION: Carter Cremers of Willoughby recently visited with Santa at Willowbrook Shopping Centre, receiving a colouring book from the bearded man.
CAPTION:Colby, Carter, and Kallie Cremers of Willoughby recently visited with Santa at Willowbrook Shopping Centre.
CAPTION: Seven-year-old Evangeline Hulme (inset) of Cloverdale was given a bells from Santa’s sleigh, asked to ring it and to keep the magic of Christmas alive.