A twinkle-eyed girl bounces up and down, waving at the jolly fellow who returns the gesture with a beaming smile. The man is dressed in red velvet and black boots, and boasts an impressive white beard.
“I want to keep the spirit of Christmas going as long as I can, and I want people to believe,” says Brian Chambers, the man underneath the white beard. Chambers has been working for Santa Claus for about 25 years, filling in whenever Santa himself can’t make it to places like the Park Lane mall.
“I’m not here to promote toys and things; I’m here to promote the spirit.”
Peck the elf, also known as Marcel Landry, was Chambers’ partner at parties, malls and community events for 18 years. In October, Landry died at the age of 38 due to a heart attack. This year, Chambers is facing the Christmas season without him.
“I hired him, or, he hired himself, one summer when we were doing Christmas in July,” says Chambers. “It just worked out, I mean, he was perfect. And then when I told him I was doing the IWK tree lighting, he had been in the hospital so much that he said, ‘Look, this is a good way for me to give back something that the IWK gave to me.’ And he just rose to the occasion.”
Chambers, who commutes from Windsor every day, says he was nervous filling the role of Santa at first because he was afraid of what the children might ask, especially at the IWK. “But they wanted toys just like everybody else. And after that it was smooth sailing.”
Chambers says Landry was the best partner he could have had. Without him, “I would probably only be doing half of the I’ve been doing, but he was my driving force. He wanted the kids around him, he wanted to please them. As soon as he saw the kids coming he’d have a smile on his face. He was just a happy-go-lucky type of person.”
Chambers says some of the kids were scared of Landry because they were caught off guard by his stature, “and some of them looked behind to see if he had feet tucked beneath him.”
This year Janice Buchanan, who helped out as a photographer last year, stepped in to try to fill the void. “I didn’t want to be an elf,” she says, “because I could never replace Marcel.” Instead she plays the role of Mrs. Claus, and says it’s been fun because people aren’t expecting it. Chambers and Buchanan both take time off from their full-time jobs to help Santa out, but they say it’s definitely worth it. “I would love to work with kids,” says Buchanan, “so this gives me that opportunity to do it on the side.”
The two remember how Peck, who got his name from the movie Willow, used to explain how Santa first came with his sleigh to pick him up from his balcony. The biggest fear Chambers had about starting this season was facing questions about where Landry was, and not upsetting the children with his answer. He usually explains that Peck is back at the workshop, and he says having Mrs. Claus by his side has helped.
But he does get some other tough questions. One child asked for his parents to get back together. A homeless teen came and told him she wanted to go home. He contacted the Kinsmen’s Operation Go Home, but such situations can leave Chambers feeling helpless. Aside from these difficult times, he says children will answer their own questions, if you let them.
One child told him he had a sparkle on his nose. “I thought I might have had a runny nose or something,” says Chambers, laughing. “So I said, ‘I wonder how that got there.’ She sat there and told me the rest of her list, and then all of a sudden she said, ‘Santa I know.’ And I said, ‘you know what?’ She said, ‘I know how that sparkle got there. That’s the dust you use to make your reindeer fly.’ She worked her own situation out, and a lot of them will do that.”
Although a holiday season without Landry took some getting used to, Chambers says he’ll continue working for Santa for as long as he’s able. “I really enjoy children; I enjoy the look on their face. I enjoy the little ones that come up and start shaking, they quiver because they’re so happy to be there,” he says smiling. “Christmas is my time of year.”
Jennifer Benjamin is a journalism student at the University of King’s College and has been interning at The Coast since late November.