It isn’t always easy filling in for Santa – just ask South Surrey’s Allan Johnson.
The 71-year-old has been donning the red suit for seven years now – to attend events when Santa himself has been unavailable – and while his love for the role hasn’t wavered, there are moments that tug at the heartstrings.
“You do remember these things, because there’s times you wish you could do more than just the ‘Ho ho ho, Merry Christmas’ thing,” Johnson said.
Like in Maple Ridge one year, when a young girl came to visit him at a small mall there. She was about eight or nine years old, and she had only one wish for Christmas.
“She said, ‘All I want is for my mom and dad to stop fighting’,” Johnson recalled.
“When you’re hearing things like that, that hits you. What can Santa do?
“Because I am a believer, I said, ‘I’ll pray for you and your family.’ I think she understood.”
Fortunately, Johnson’s answers as the Jolly Old Elf are sufficient to satisfy most of his visitors most of the time.
He’s learned to be quick on his feet when asked things such as why can’t his reindeer be seen (they’re shy, and stay out of sight on the roof so they’re safe from traffic), or when faced with a wish-list comprised solely of must-have electronics he’s unfamiliar with.
“I don’t have a clue what they’re talking about,” he chuckled.
And then there was the boy who demanded to know why he didn’t receive anything he’d asked for the previous year.
“He was quite ticked off,” Johnson recalled. “He says, ‘Why didn’t I?’
“I said, ‘Well, were you a good boy?’ He stops and thinks for a bit. I said, ‘Well, by you stopping and thinking, you’re admitting Santa already knows’.”
Johnson’s career as a Santa started with a dare, when a friend who ran an operation booking Jolly Old Elfs for mall appearances challenged the white-haired Johnson to let his “bit of a beard” fill out.
“He says, ‘you should let your beard grow, I think you’d make a good Santa – I dare ya,'” the senior recalled. “So I said, ‘OK, sure’.”
A bricklayer by trade, Johnson – who works part-time at the South Surrey Home Depot – grew up on a hobby farm in Lake Cowichan, then took technical-school training in Alberta before moving to Ontario in 1986.
He spent time in Uganda in 1994, on a missions trip to build homes for orphans, then moved to South Surrey with his wife, Cheryl – who often joins him at his Santa sessions, as an elf – in 1998.
His 2015 Santa season started “full-tilt” late last month.
Visiting Santa is not just for the young, Johnson said. While he has held visitors as young as four days old – “the little ones are the ones that make me a little nervous,” he admitted – he’s also heard the wishes of many seniors over the years.
“The oldest I’ve had sit on my knee was a lady, 107,” Johnson said.
He’s also had first-time visitors in their 60s and 70s.
Regardless of age, everybody comes with a sparkle in their eye, he said. And, as Christmas draws closer, he knows the number of visitors will pick up. Last year, as a Santa at Burnaby’s Metrotown, he averaged 45 to 55 visitors per hour on the last two weekends before the big day. Many waited more than an hour to see him.
Fortunately, meeting new people has always been something that Johnson has enjoyed.
“I enjoy children and people and the different walks of life and different nationalities,” he said. “It’s fun.
“Now that I’ve been doing it, it seems a natural fit.”