In the Nick of time

From a generous monk in the third century to a soft drink advertising campaign, Saint Nicholas has been with us through the ages.

“Ho! Ho! Ho! Ho!” Peter Saulnier is demonstrating how to laugh like Santa. He holds his very round belly as he points to it.“It has to come from down there,” he says, and gives a jolly laugh. He does some warm up laughs in front of the mirror.

Saulnier has a pair of black suspenders holding up his red, velvet Santa pants. Still shirtless, his bare, round belly shakes as he moves around the room getting ready. He waits until the last minute before he puts his on his coat, saying it’s too warm to wear for long. Saulnier’s face is already flushed with a combination of rouge and pre-show excitement. His silver hair is a brush cut.

Saulnier is carrying on a tradition. Christmas evolved during the mid to late 19th century from a purely Christian holiday celebrating the Feast of Saint Nicholas and the birth of Christ to a more commercial holiday about gift-giving. Retail shops began to hire people to dress as Santa to attract children and their parents to their stores. With the birth of Christmas shopping, came the birth of the live in-store Santa. And the modern image of the fat, jolly man with white hair and beard, dressed in a red suit is actually a Coca-Cola advertising campaign creation (that continued for 35 years), first drawn by Haddon Sundblom in 1931.

In 10 minutes, Peter Saulnier will walk through the South Centre Mall in Spryfield and greet people. Then he will unveil his special Christmas window display that has taken him three weeks to construct—on a volunteer basis—in an empty storefront.

“The biggest thing is the kids,” says Saulnier. “Watch the kids when they come and look at it. Their eyes get so big.”

The Santa village is a miniature model of buildings and homes around Spryfield from the ’50s and ’60s, which Saulnier has recreated from memory or pictures. It is the size of a small bedroom and is painstakingly assembled to evoke the spirit of a winter day. There are snow-filled roads and streetlights. There are vintage cars on the tiny streets and small human figurines tobogganing down snow banks.

It started out as a hobby for Saulnier but has come to mean more to the community. The owners of the real buildings featured in the village often rent their miniature replicas for display after the Santa window is taken down in February. Saulnier then uses the money raised to construct new buildings and add to his existing village. This is the third year of the Santa Village window and each year the village gets bigger and more elaborate.

“It is a Christmas tradition,” says Allan MacDonald, manager of the South Centre Mall.

Saulnier lucked into the job of Santa over 26 years ago when the regular Santa at the Bedford Place Mall got sick. That gig only lasted a few days, but it was a fluke that became a passion for Saulnier. However, it did take him a few years to hit his Santa stride.

“I was the ugliest Santa you’ve ever seen,” he says. “I looked like one of those 50-cent Santa Clauses.”

He has come a long way since those days. He’s been the city parade Santa for 25 years, the Santa at South Centre Mall for 23 and has visited the children at the IWK Health Centre for the last 20 years, despite his 13 heart attacks.

“I never missed a year,” he says with pride. “I was a little sore doing it but we still got through them.”

Now Saulnier has an elaborate costume that he shows off with great pride. It took him 10 years to find the perfect wig and matching beard set. It’s made from yak wool and has the texture of real hair. The thick white moustache is his, he points out.

“The heat from my face activates the glue,” he says of his beard. His custom-made Santa belt has pewter reindeer buckles and embossed winter scenes of snowy hills. On the back of the belt it reads Santa Claus in red letters. He also has bells on his boots and he jingles as he walks around the room getting ready. He puts on his wig of white ringlets, tightens his belt around his coat and does a few more practice laughs.

There is something about Saulnier that makes him the perfect Santa. It takes a while to pinpoint what it is. Eventually you realize it’s his eyes. They are twinkling, full of warmth. Or maybe it’s his kindness. Saulnier is the type of person who casually describes giving away his own watches to young children who notice and admire them. He says it’s all done in the spirit of Christmas.

The legend of Saint Nicholas can be traced back to a monk from the third century in what is now Turkey. Legend has it that St. Nick gave away his wealth and roamed the countryside helping those who were poor and in need of help. It is no wonder that Saulnier seems a perfect fit in his Santa suit.

“I just love kids,” he says. “Being Santa is just something that gets to me. I could tell you stories all day about kids.” Saulnier reads all the letters children give him. One year, he says, he hand delivered a real police hat, badge and handcuffs to a young boy.

Being a Santa is just an extension of community involvement for Saulnier. He is a scout leader and he visits local schools and public libraries to give oral histories of Spryfield regularly.

“He is recognized throughout the community as Santa,” says MacDonald. “He makes our Christmas.”

Back in the dressing room Saulnier looks over at his wife and says, “Let me know when they start to show out there.” He doesn’t want to disappoint. There are perks to being Santa’s wife, says Sharon Saulnier.

“I don’t have to make a Christmas list anytime at all,” she jokes.As the time draws nearer for him to begin his tour, Saulnier becomes more and more like Santa. He puts his on his tasseled hat and his gold-rimmed glasses. He jumps around a little. He tightens his belt.

Now the children who sat on his knee with letters a generation ago, bring their own kids to see him.

“There are thousands of pictures of me out there,” laughs Saulnier.Then the mall music comes piping over the sound system. It’s “Here comes Santa Claus” and he’s out the door in an excited blast.

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