Michael Dougherty is secretary of the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition and a long-time Yukoner.
Back in 1966, as a first-year university student and newest resident counsellor at St. Joseph’s Institute for the Deaf in St. Louis, Mo., I drew the short stick. Tall, lanky, beardless and with some trepidation, I donned a Santa suit for the first time as an 18-year-old. Fake, from the scratchy synthetic beard and two pillows stuffed under a well-used red jacket down to the black boot-shaped, strap-on shoe covers, how could I carry this off? I soon found out that it simply didn’t make any difference. When I walked in, with a bag slung over my shoulder, the hall full of kids gleefully erupted.
Fifty-two years later, let’s just say I have grown into the role. However, the reaction from the little ones I greet is just the same. Now with my naturally white beard, I suit up every season in an outfit that my wife, Eva – alias Mrs. Claus – created for me. As a Santa in Whitehorse, my outfit has adopted Northern accoutrements. Mukluks from Beauval, Sask., replace the black boots. The customary belt gives way to a voyageur sash from Manitoba. And large wolf mitts are definitely preferred over white cotton gloves when facing Yukon temperatures – particularly during our annual Santa parade.
Change anything and some kids need convincing that you are the real Santa. One six-year-old boy insisted I couldn’t possibly be the real Santa because I lacked the broad black belt with its big brass buckle. On the other hand, I have been able to convince most that mukluks are far better footwear up north than black boots, which are reserved for slushier southern visits.
Four- to seven-year-olds usually accept Santa as he is. If they are reluctant, an invitation to gently tug on my beard can be enough to convince most kids that I am truly Santa. Others require more proof. Two brothers from one family put me to the test for several years. The first time I saw them, they spoke to me in French – knowing of course that the real Santa had to speak all languages. My answers satisfied them. The next year, they asked a question in Spanish, which was even easier for me to answer. The third year, they prepared a question in Dutch, which fortunately their mother had forewarned me of so I could prepare an answer for them. Mercifully, none of us could or needed to continue the conversation, and they had what they needed. Their belief in Santa had been secured for yet another year.
Most of the time, credibility isn’t an issue. Coming to see Santa can be part of a family’s seasonal customs. Every year, I have a wide range of visits – from newborn infants, barely home from the hospital, to 80-year-olds surrounded by adult children and grandchildren there for a family photo. Having greeted Yukoners as Santa for more than two decades, I have parents who sat with me when they were little now bringing their own children for a visit.
Often I have to be prepared for children who run up and literally jump onto my lap. Most don’t need cajoling to sit with Santa. When they do, it is usually the one- to three-year-olds who present a challenge. Early one season, a little one who very much wanted to see Santa approached my chair but stopped in her tracks several metres away. Nothing could get her to come nearer. If I approached, she retreated behind her mother’s legs. Her parents brought her for three successive Sundays – until she mustered up the courage to quickly take a candy cane from the man in red.
With a reluctant toddler, one strategy I share with young parents is to have them hold the child so that she is looking directly back at them. They should approach Santa slowly, talking to their child as they come up with the other parent nearby, camera at the ready. As they quickly hand over the child, the picture needs to be snapped rapidly. A cry and outstretched arms often soon follow when the little one realizes just what has happened. My bouncing knee and jingling wrist bells sometimes help overcome tears with wonder.
My days as a Yukon Santa began when the Learning Disabilities Association of the Yukon needed a volunteer Santa for a fundraiser in the wonderful old village setting we used to have at the now-closed Hougen’s Department Store. Asked because I had a white beard if I could sit for photos one particular Friday night, I informed them that, regrettably, I was tied up that night. However, I offered that if there was any other night that I could be of assistance, I would be happy to. They signed me on for every other night on their schedule!
The next year I became Hougen’s “professional” Santa and rode in the three-block-long parade up Main Street from the White Pass and Yukon Railroad station to their store. This event officially began the Christmas season in Whitehorse. I have ridden in a vintage car, a horse-drawn surrey, in and on a fire truck, on an improvised flatbed truck float and in a pedi-cab. Perhaps the most memorable parade was when organizers asked Frank Turner, a winner of the 1,600-kilometre-long Yukon Quest sled dog race, to provide a dog team and sled for my transport. Initially, I thought I would be sitting in the basket of the sled and just waving. Frank had another idea and sent me off standing on the runners, desperately holding on while waving and frantically trying to slow down a team of very energetic dogs. The dogs and I survived our journey, much to the delight of the festive crowd.
Eventually, competition from box stores forced the old local department store to close, but visits to daycare centres, city and neighbourhood events and corporate Christmas parties ensure Santa always visits Whitehorse. The key to being Santa for me remains the same 50 years later: sharing in the wonder of the season with the children who come for a visit.
At times, a child will present me with a list of the toys he is yearning for. Most often, however, our conversation turns to the colours and sounds of the season or where my reindeer are. The management of the department store once put a mike on me so that parents could listen in on our conversations. They often only found out what their child’s favourite cookie or decoration was.
One year, I decided to bring a large, brightly wrapped book and kept it with a plumed pen near my seat. It was too good a prop: Many young ones saw it and were worried about what I had written in there about them. This persuaded me to scrap any talk of the “naughty or nice” list, though some children still ask me about it. Occasionally, a parent will want me to act as a preventative disciplinarian and address some fault with the implied threat of a sad Christmas if behaviour isn’t improved. This is the last thing I wish to do. Children come to me with a sparkle in their eyes. I am not going to dim that.
Christmas is a time of giving and sharing. Most children intuitively understand this and want to give me something – from cookies to drawings. Once, a young kindergarten lass brought me a shiny pebble. I told her that I would take it with me and show it to everyone at the North Pole. Since I knew her parents – Whitehorse is a small town – I gave them an envelope with the pebble in it and a note from Santa telling their daughter how much it had been admired. They were to put it into her Christmas stocking. I like to imagine that, as an adult today, she still has that pebble. Does it continue to hold some of the wonder of the season for her?
We have one locally owned toy store here in Whitehorse, Angellina’s, at the corner of Main and Front streets. Once a year for more than a decade, families have come to visit Santa there. The Baked Café across the aisle stays open to serve free cookies and cocoa. The lineup always trails down the block-long interior corridor of the venerable Horwood Mall. Before I take my seat, I walk down the waiting line of parents and children, greeting them. They always reflect the diversity of our community, from newcomers, Sourdoughs and First Nations to blue-, white- and fur-collared folk. What draws them – the man in a red suit or the meaning behind the symbol?
Long ago, Frank Church wrote his famous letter to eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon in which he offered: “Alas! how dreary the world would be if there were no Santa Claus.” The message of the season transcends narrow cultural bounds, and so do its symbols. A world where simple kindness, giving, sharing and love predominate can be striven for by all of us. The obligation to offer our children hope must be as bright as the lights surrounding us this Christmas, as gladdening as its carols and as merry as “Ho, ho, ho!”