In the 33 years that Bruce Templeton’s name has been synonymous with Santa Claus, he’s had many experiences with St. John’s children who have warmed his heart.
There have also been many who have broken it.
Children have asked, “What kind of cookies do you like?” “How do you get all around the world in one night?” and, “How do you get inside houses with no chimney?”
And then there are the visits to the Janeway’s oncology ward and pediatric intensive care units every Christmas Eve, and questions like, “Why does my daddy love to drink more than he loves me?” and a note, complete with phone number, from a little boy living in an abusive home: “Please save me, Santa. I love you.”
Templeton recently decided to write down some of his most memorable experiences, and, with the help of Creative Books, has turned them into “The Man in the Red Suit: A Memoir,” a collection of short, true stories of his life with Santa Claus.
Templeton explains, for the benefit of any younger readers, that his relationship with Santa began when his aunt Anna Templeton — known for her role in the development of crafts in this province — asked him if he’d be Santa’s helper by dressing up for children at St. Andrew’s church.
“You didn’t argue with Aunt Anna,” Templeton says, laughing. “I called her back a couple of days later and said, ‘Aunt Anna, I looked around and I can’t find a suit.’ When you tell the director of crafts in Newfoundland you can’t find a suit, you’d better be ready for her reply. She said, ‘What would happen if I made it?’ What came to my house was red velvet and lambswool, black leather and brass, prescription glasses and a yak hair beard.”
Templeton, an investment adviser, and Santa have been inseparable every Christmas since then, doing about 40 visits each year to various holiday events, daycares and seniors’ homes.
Templeton rides in a helicopter before the St. John’s Santa Claus parade, and is on the float when Santa rides down Water Street, waving and calling to the children.
Every Christmas Eve at about
8 p.m., Santa goes to the Janeway, accompanied by his chief elf, pediatric cardiologist Christina Templeton — Bruce Templeton’s daughter. Together, they start on the surgery floor, stop by the neo-natal and pediatric intensive care (PICU) units, and end up in the emergency room.
These are the stories in Templeton’s book that are the most heart-wrenching. The staff at the Janeway go out of their way to make sure every child who can go home for Christmas does so. The ones that are left are very, very sick.
“Some of them are so small that I actually don’t get to hold them. I see them through an incubator,” Templeton says.
In his book is the story of a little girl from Labrador, accidentally burned when she knocked over a kerosene lamp. As she lay in the hospital bed, 95 per cent of her body covered in bandages, waiting for her parents to arrive at the hospital, Santa visited. As he looked in her eyes, Templeton said, a wide smile appeared on her face.
There’s also Chelsea, a toddler who was admitted to an isolation unit after having a major seizure. As Santa entered her room, the doctor told him although Chelsea wouldn’t be able to see him, if he shook his bells, she would hear him. He did, and Chelsea — who had been unresponsive for the previous 15 hours — opened her eyes.
Templeton tells a story about Ariel, a tiny elf in striped pajamas who Santa held in the PICU, whom he learned passed away less than two months later. And Richard, a little boy with a brain tumour who had fallen asleep waiting for Santa, but with whom Santa posed for a photo anyway, tucking his own teddy bear under the child’s arm as he slept. Richard, too, later passed away.
“It’s not a question of my ability to go into the hospital. I must do it,” Templeton says. “It’s a ministry, and I don’t have any choice here. I’ve realized that I’m a part of a team, so on Christmas Eve in the Janeway, I’m there for the child and I’m there for the parents.”
One of Templeton’s most touching stories comes from a visit organized by Provincial Airlines and VOCM.
Each year, children call the radio station with questions for Santa, and a number of them are chosen to ask him their question in person. They’re flown to the “North Pole” — the airplane windows blacked out with Christmas paper — and Santa boards the plane, talking to them one-by-one. He’s given their questions in advance, so he can have time to think about them.
“I saw that Billy was in Row 1 and the question he wanted answered was, ‘Do your feet smell as bad as Uncle Billy’s when you take off your boots?’ and Lucy was in Row 2 and her question was, ‘How do you go to the bathroom on the sleigh?’” Templeton says. “I didn’t want to get down to Row 7, and I had had 18 hours to get my head around this little girl’s question. Her mommy had died in a car accident eight weeks before and her question was, ‘Will my mommy’s spirit be with you in the sleigh Christmas Eve?’
“She looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘So what’s the answer to my question?’ I said, ‘You never need to worry, Sweetheart. Your mommy’s spirit will be with Santa on Christmas Eve and Mommy’s spirit will be with you for the rest of your life.’ She said, ‘Thank you, Santa. That’s all I needed to know for Christmas.’”
When asked if he planned to retire from his job with Santa any time soon, Templeton’s answer is quick: “No. How?”
With “The Man in the Red Suit,” Templeton says, his goal is to alter readers’ Christmas experience. He’s on a mission, he says, to encourage busy parents and grandparents to turn off their iPhones and laptops, and spend more quality time with their children; children, Santa points out, who grow up in a blink.
“(Christmas) isn’t about whether you get the newest iPad or XBox,” Templeton says. “What I’m trying to get parents and grandparents to do is go tobogganing, go sliding, make hot chocolate, make sugar cookies, get up some morning and make pancakes. Do something with your family which will create an experience that your children will never forget, while they make memories for you.
“It’s your presence, not presents, that counts.”
With a foreward written by former premier Danny Williams, “The Man in the Red Suit” will be available in bookstores and at Costco Monday. The official launch will take place Wednesday at Clovelly Golf Course. Templeton will sign copies of the book at Chapters in St. John’s Saturday, Sept. 29 from 1-3 p.m., and Oct. 27 at Costco.
This story has been changed to correct an editing error.