Bells chime with each of his footsteps.
As he jingles across Capilano Mall, the eyes of children – and some parents – widen at the exotic, comforting sight.
“Hey Santa Claus!”
For more than two decades of Decembers, North Vancouver families have gathered around the Capilano Mall Santa Claus to share secrets and skepticism and magic apples. For some families he’s it. The real Santa Claus.
This Sunday at about 5 p.m. he’ll walk out of his workshop for the last time.
“I’m really sad to be leaving,” he says. “It’s just time.”
He wasn’t always Santa Claus. But in the mid-1990s he found himself at loose ends and a friend – noticing his ivory beard and the roses blooming in either cheek – suggested he become the jolly old elf.
“The idea of it actually scared the hell out of me,” he remembers.
He didn’t want to be one of those guys, smelling of beef and cheese whilst sitting on a throne of lies. A mall could wrest the magic from Santa, turning the polar sky aviator into a shopping centre amusement.
No, he wouldn’t be a sit-snap-see-ya Santa, he decided. He would offer his time, his ear, and his stories.
“I loved it from the get-go,” he says. “I could really regress to a five-year-old real fine.”
“What I love about him is that he takes time for every family,” explains North Vancouver mother Wendy Waller. “Usually in the hustle and bustle and when you’re in a line you’re just like, ‘Hurry up, already.’ ... I never feel that way when I’m in that line.”
Making his way into his workshop, Santa picks up an apple.
These apples have magic inside and sometimes they grant wishes, he says, a Cornwall accent dancing on the edge of his words.
“It’s got to be your very own secret wish. You can’t tell anybody, except for your mom or your dad. It might not come true right away, but it’s going to come true.”
Children come to him with all manner of wishes, he says, remembering a particularly brave four-year-old turning to him and saying: “Santa, do you mind if I have a word?”
“You’re going to be on the roof with your reindeer, right?” the boys asked.
“That’s the plan,” Santa told him.
After a tiny hesitation, the boy asked the big question: “Would you mind throwing down my Frisbee?”
He recalls the children who arrive at his lap with itemized lists.
“Santa Claus can only bring you one thing because he’s got to make sure every single boy and girl gets at least one toy,” he tells them.
But there are also the questions he can’t handle. A young Muslim girl asked him about freeing her brother from jail. A boy confessed to him that what he really wanted was his dad to come home. Another child told him about a sibling who passed away.
“That still breaks me up,” he says, touching his chest. “I’m Santa Claus, man, I ain’t a therapist.”
Santa Claus does a lot of trying, he explains.
Waller hopes he’ll know his trying is appreciated.
She recalls one Christmas in particular. Her son’s friends were teasing him, disputing the authenticity of the reindeer-chewed carrots he’d found every Christmas morning.
Doubt was advancing, innocence receding. Waller understood, but she also wondered if she could get just “one more Christmas” out of him.
On Dec. 22, the Waller family returned to the North Shore after a year spent in Australia. Despite adjusting to the changes in time and temperature following the 17-hour flight home, they headed to Capilano Mall.
He was still there.
Santa took her son aside, Waller remembers.
There’s a Santa Claus, “As long as you believe,” he told the boy.
Walking out of the mall, Waller’s son gave her one more Christmas.
“That’s the real Santa,” he told her.
Over 12 years, Waller’s two sons went from sitting astride Santa’s knees to towering over the lively, quick gentleman. They would keep going to Santa as long as Santa kept going to Cap Mall.
“He’s been a part of our tradition for so many years,” she says. “He made Christmas very special for so many kids and parents on the North Shore.”
“I think I’m on many fridges in North Vancouver,” Santa laughs. “It’s great being a huge fish in this minute pond.”
It’s been getting harder, he says. He needs two breaks these days, and he tends to spend both of them snoozing.
He’s grateful to the mall and the community, both of whom let him be Santa, he says.
“We have such a dearth of icons and events and celebrations,” he says. “It’s a privilege to be in this suit.”
As he speaks, a child asks about a visit with Santa. Tomorrow, he tells her.
There’ll be another Santa Claus, of course. But as Truman Capote once wrote about a Christmas tree, “There’s never two of anything.”
As Santa’s boots chime like cowboy spurs on his way out of the mall, a little boy holds up his hand. The little hand and the big, white-gloved hand touch with a smack. The boy smiles.
Santa smiles back and walks away.