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The end of an era: Kneeling Santa retires to North Pole
Ten years ago this December, when I was a writer and photographer for the Arlington Catholic Herald in northern Virginia, I got to tell the story of a very special Santa Claus.
For four decades, Santa visited the Merrifield Garden Center just outside the Beltway in Fairfax County and brought the true meaning of Christmas to the lines upon lines of children who waited to visit him, some for hours. It is the only time I have ever witnessed a Santa Claus kneeling, hands pressed together, as children gathered next to him in front of a manger scene. It really was a sight to see, and it was by far the most popular and shared photograph I have ever taken. I suppose that’s an indication that many others also consider a Santa Claus in a commercial venue kneeling before the Christ Child to be an anomaly.
After drawing the young people’s attention to the Nativity scene, Santa, who reluctantly agreed to be identified for my story as his alias, John Buckreis, would lead the crowds of kids in renditions of Christmas carols. And he was sure to include plenty of religious ones.
Buckreis’ approach to Santa kept families returning year after year, some spanning generations. Despite his obvious Christian message, he was careful not to lecture during his daily “press conferences.” Instead, he would give a short talk — a mix of fun and faith — and then instruct the kids to talk to their parents if they had more questions about the real reason for the season.
“I turn it over to the parents,” Buckreis told me at the time. “I’m forcing the parents to become involved in Christmas and they love it. They want it.”
Said parent Will McGowan: “He’s the best Santa. He leaves the commercialism out and brings what the true meaning of Christmas is. It’s as simple as that.”
And it really is.
Of course it wouldn’t be a visit with Santa Claus if each child did not get the opportunity to sit on Santa’s lap and tell him what he or she wanted for Christmas. But once finished, each child received from Santa a lollipop — and a holy card. Just one more small reminder from Buckreis that Christmas is about a “Who” rather than a long list of “whats.”
And so my heart sank a little when I called the Merrifield Garden Center this month and was told that Santa “has retired to the North Pole.” It truly is the end of a remarkable era.
But while sad, I can’t say I am altogether surprised. When I had interviewed him in 2008, Buckreis was 78 years old. That would make him 88 this Christmas — far past traditional retirement age, even for a right jolly old elf.
Though Buckreis’s Santa at Merrifield Garden Center is no more, I am certain that the memory of this very special St. Nicholas will live on in the hearts of the thousands of children who visited him. Because it was through him that they came to know and love the true meaning of Christmas.
Gretchen R. Crowe is editor-in-chief of Our Sunday Visitor. Follow her on Twitter @GretchenOSV.