The Cowichan Lake and District Chamber of Commerce has found a new person to play Santa for the annual Christmas parade and tree-lighting event at Saywell Park, which will be held Sunday, Dec. 4 this year.
The new Santa has some big boots to fill, as his outgoing counterpart took the role very seriously.
So seriously, in fact, that he has asked the Gazette not to publish his name; he would rather children not know who was behind the beard the past several years in Lake Cowichan.
“I don’t need personal recognition,” he said.
However, his story does warrant telling, and for that reason we’ll refer to him as Kris in this story, short, of course, for Kris Kringle from Miracle on 34th Street.
Kris has been donning the iconic red and wet suit for close to 50 years — since he was a 14-year-old high school student in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
His teacher, a nun named Sister Mary Ellen, told the class that nobody would play Santa Claus for the mentally challenged children at one of the local hospitals.
“That’s not right! They deserve to have Santa as much as everybody else,” said Kris.
“Well nobody will go over. Would you?” she asked.
Kris had never done anything like that before, and was hardly more than a kid himself.
But Sister Mary Ellen said they would provide the costume if he was up to the challenge.
Kris agreed, and from then on he was hooked.
“I just fell in love with the job because there was so much love and warmth and beauty, and there was so much dedication there. Those young people — their capacity to love is not clouded by their malady,” he said. “I was touched.”
His own childhood memories of visits to Santa also motivated him to do the best job he could. Kris recalled sitting on the knees of “old rummies” with big red noses who smelled of cigarettes and booze.
“It was sort of scary for little kids. And I said that’s not the Santa I want to be,” he said. “I just never stopped. For 49 years.”
Kris grew up and soon had children of his own. One of his daughters was born with a hole in her diaphragm and at eight hours old had to be put in a medically induced coma to allow surgeons to operate on her. The procedure was a success.
“How the heck do you say thank you to a hospital for saving your daughter’s life?” he said. “So I went in and I was Santa for them every year until I [moved].”
Kris’ wife at the time made him a beautiful red velvet Santa suit; he ordered beards (he’s gone through three or four over the years) from a theatrical supplies company; he found the perfect pair of brown boots (which he dyed black) at a Sears clearance basement; he found an elk hide belt and had his own prescription lenses put into the heirloom, round-rimmed glasses he inherited from his grandfather. He did everything he could to make his outfit perfect.
The holidays were a busy time for Kris. He not only volunteered his services at places like hospitals, but was on-hire for Christmas tree lots and department stores as a way to make a little extra money during the holiday season.
When Kris moved to the lake, and was still getting to know the area, he hopped on the bus one day to pick the driver’s brain.
“I [thought] ah, the bus driver! He knows everybody around,” said Kris. “I said to him, ‘Listen, I’m just new in town. I brought my Santa suit with me. I can be Santa Claus for anybody who wants.’ Well didn’t the guy on the bus look at me and say, ‘I’m the Santa Claus around here. Take your seat.’”
Kris still laughs when he thinks about that encounter. But later that year, the bus driver wound up with a shoulder injury and he phoned Kris.
“Remember what I said to you on the bus? I can’t be Santa Claus this year. Can you?” he asked.
From then on, Kris played Santa for the boys and girls of Lake Cowichan. He would ride around town in one of the fire trucks, ringing his bell and waving, before joining the Christmas parade. Other years he rode on the Country Grocer float. And he would always help officiate the tree-lighting ceremony with the mayor, hanging some lights and flipping the big switch to turn them on.
Then he would sit and listen to the children explain what they want for Christmas.
But Kris has had to step down from his duties.
“With the declining of my health, I worry so much when I get on and off that float that I’m going to fall, and I get so dizzy. My health has just got to a point where I cannot safely do it anymore for myself or for the children,” he said.
For the new person taking on the mantel of Father Christmas, Kris has a few bits of advice.
Don’t let the parents rush their kids; he said sometimes a parent will try to hurry things up, but Santa should (not literally) “ push the parents aside and be that special person for the children.” If visiting a Christian household, read the story of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem; if visiting a mixed-faith group, go with the Night Before Christmas. And always wear white gloves.
“In photos, a big beefy man’s hand covers the child, you can’t even see the kid. But when you put a white glove on, your hand magically disappears,” he said.
Kris said there’s lots he will miss about being Lake Cowichan’s Santa.
What was the best thing about it?
“Being more excited than the kids when it’s all over. Honestly, it invigorates you,” he said.
“You’re physically tired out, you might have to take your drawers to the dry cleaners because someone had a little accident on your pants, y’know, those things just happen. But no matter what the difficulties that arise, the beauty is seeing that sparkle and that wonder in the youngsters’ eyes.”