Seven-year-old Charlie is distraught as he climbs on Santa’s knee at Willowbrook Shopping Centre.
This youngster is very obviously scared, a look of dread evident on his young face.
But he’s not fearful of the jolly old elf all dressed in red and white.
No, Charlie is terrified of something much more serious – at least in his books.
He fears Saint Nick won’t know where to find him on Christmas Eve.
“This little guy was just really, really upset,” Santa recounted.
Between soft sobs, Charlie explains that he’s recently moved. Although he still lives in Langley – just a few blocks from his old home – he’s been fretting for weeks that a move this close to the holidays means he won’t get any toys for Christmas.
But, with a big rumbling laugh and a wink of his eye, Santa reassures the young boy on his lap that – because he was such a good boy this year – he and the reindeer will most definitely be visiting on Dec. 24.
To offer a little extra reassurance, Santa reaches into his coat pocket and withdraws a tiny satchel that he holds out for Charlie.
A puzzled look crosses Charlie’s face as he accepted the odd little package. And as the gold bag bangs against the little boy’s hand, it made a noise – piquing the lad’s curiosity even further.
Reaching inside the little cloth bag, Charlie pulled out a small brass bell.
Santa reaches out, and takes the bell back for a moment. Dangling it from one of his white gloved fingers, Santa says: “Ring it three times, and I’ll know exactly where you are.”
A look of awe and amazement crosses Charlie’s face, bringing a huge smile to Santa’s.
“He was so impressed. He was shocked that Santa knew his name, but he was almost giddy when I explained the purpose of the bell,” Santa elaborated.
“And, the parents were esctatic. Crisis averted.”
Many moving encounters
On a break from visiting with children at Langley’s only indoor mall, Santa shared a few of the more touching encounters he’s experienced this holiday season.
One of the most moving was the gleeful interaction with young Charlie. But admittedly, he was one of several Santa heard from this season who shared similar concerns of not being found.
Another, for example, involved a little girl going to Germany, a young boy bound for New Zealand, and an eight-year-old girl going to spend Christmas with her father in Edmonton. While she was grateful for the bell, she shared her new fear that her luggage would be lost en route, and so too, the bell.
That’s when Mom stepped in and offered to zip the bell into one of girl’s often-unused jacket pockets, to ensure its was safely protected.
“They were terrified Santa wouldn’t know how to find them. So Santa fixed it,” he said.
Among other special moments at Willowbrook this season, Santa recounted how a group of nine RCMP babies were brought in for photos early in the season.
“That was definitely a highlight,” he said, explaining that it’s been a bit of a tradition with the local police force to bring in the new babies of the year.
Santa also received a visit from four expectant mothers, all scheduled to give birth before Christmas and all who vowed to return with their newborns before the season was over.
“They were expecting within a week or so, and they all said they’ll be back…”
He’s been doing this a long time now, but noted that in recent years he’s seen a significant uptake in expectant parents showing up to have photos taken with Santa holding a sonogram of their unborn baby.
In fact, he said, “it’s getting to be old hat… they come in with one child, and then pull up a sonogram.”
All I want… is peanut butter
Santa’s seen thousands of visitors already this year – ranging from as young as three days old up to 100 years old – come in to share their Christmas wishes.
He secretly chuckles as he watches different generations look to him as they pass by or wait with family to get their photos.
“Children and adults look at Santa from two different perspectives,” he insisted.
“When a child comes in to see me, the first thing they look at is my boots. Then they look at my belt. Then they look at my beard.
“Parents, on the other hand, look at exactly the opposite. They want a picturesque Santa,” he said, adding that provided there’s a red suit, a nice picture backdrop, and a jolly attitude, they’re usually content.
While the primary purpose of these visit is to get pictures taken with Santa, every child is invariably asked what they want for Christmas – if they haven’t already offered up that information before the toy guy has a chance to ask.
As is always the case each year, there have been a few odd gift requests in 2019.
Among them, one little girl – about five – asked for a jar of peanut butter to share with her family.
“According to her parents, she’s a very caring child. She shares everything she’s got,” Santa recalled.
He also had two kids asking for cows, and another wanting a goat. It took some convincing, but Santa managed to explain that he can’t deliver animals.
Santa was particularly humbled by a request from one 75-year-old-plus woman who had never before stopped in for a visit.
All she wanted was a picture with the old guy.
She reluctantly approached, and said: “Is this only for children? I’ve never had a picture taken with Santa. Can I have a picture taken with Santa?”
Of course, Santa replied, inviting her onto his knee for pictures.
She was all smiles, and not only for the photos, Santa said. Later that same day he spotted her in the mall – and noted that she was still beaming.
Leaving Christmas Eve
Those visiting him at Willowbrook are not just from Langley, Santa explained. Most travel from around the Lower Mainland, with many coming from North Vancouver, Chilliwack, and countless from Surrey and White Rock.
He’s had visits with a few from Vancouver Island, at least one family from 100 Mile House, and a former Langleyite who relocated to Williams Lake and comes back early every Christmas season to see him at Willowbrook.
“From what I gather, I have a bit of a following here in Langley,” Santa said.
Set up in the mall for visits since mid-November, Santa will continue to meet with children and adults alike until 1 p.m. on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24.
By the end of this holiday season, he predicts he’ll visit with about 10,000 visitors – at Willowbrook alone. He anticipates that will be a slight uptick compared to years gone by.
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