A gaggle of giggling children waits with excitement to visit Santa in his sleigh.
One by one, the kids walk up the pathway in the centre of Centenoka Park Mall, some with exuberance, others more restrained.
And one by one, Santa greets them with a smile and gentle welcome.
Besides knowing what is on this year’s wish list, Santa wants to know if the children are putting their toys away, listening to their parents and keeping their rooms clean.
“Every child who sit on my knee gets those questions,” he said.
“That’s important because it’s not what you do for your kids, it’s what they do for themselves that makes them successful adults.”
What’s important about Christmas is the feeling of love and happiness, twinkly lights, gift giving — the feeling that goes with all that, he adds.
“And it comes at the time of year when we can all use it. As we approach the darkest days of the year, we come together and share the love.”
That love is imbued in traditions that may go back through several generations of a family, and broader traditions shared by many in community and throughout the world.
Family traditions might include hanging ornaments that have been on trees since childhood, some old and cracked but treasured nonetheless.
Or perhaps it’s about hanging Uncle Harry’s sock up, even though he is no longer here, Santa said.
“It’s important to pass traditions down to children to anchor them,” said the gentle man, who believes music is an important part of the Christmas celebration and feelings of goodwill.
“Through that you can do time travel; you hear a song that takes you back and you reflect on Christmases long ago, how families have grown and changed.”
Each child who visits Santa at Centenoka is asked if they are already playing an instrument, what they would like to learn to play if they could, and how they are doing in math because the two are closely connected, he said.
“The wonder of Christmas is a little girl in a princess dress singing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star to me, or the little girl who came in with her violin. It’s a wonder I didn’t melt and slide off my sleigh.”
This year’s top requests include LOL products for little girls and Lego for the boys.
But Santa never promises anything, rather letting children know that depending on the number of requests for the same item, availability is sometimes an issue.
And if a little person questions whether or not he is real, well…
“I take their little hands and tell them to gently pull my beard,” he said, with a twinkle in his eyes and a gentle smile.
“Then their eyes widen and they say, ‘You are Santa.’ And then they know. Besides, it’s in your heart anyway.”
Santa points out Christmas is a holiday season for many people in many lands.
“It’s not just Christmas. Many of the major faiths celebrate at this time of year and all are welcome to visit Santa. I am happy to greet everyone.”
Often a candy cane becomes a bribe to get children off of his knee and on their way, he said, pointing out this year he is very pleased by “a real uptick” in good manners.
“It’s the most ‘pleases and thank yous and excuse mes,’ the best ever, and parents and caregivers need to take a bow.”
Great pictures for building family memories lie with Brian Bannister, who started taking photos at the age of 14 and has worked with Santa for several years.
“I’m like a musician playing an instrument, creating magic with the lights and Santa,” Bannister said.
“He is the biggest part of it and I wouldn’t get those photos if it wasn’t for him.”
Bannister, a father of six, has no grandchildren as of yet and said watching and working with the children fills a void.
“There are great memories made here and it makes me feel good,” he said, noting some families ask for the same pose every year as the child grows and changes in appearance.
Santa welcomed visitors until Dec. 23, after which he had to rush back to the North Pole to make sure all was well and prepare for the speedy trip around the world on Christmas Day.