It’s a sight to see: a real, live Santa Claus on his knees, hands folded, inclining his head reverently toward statues of the Holy Family. This is how one Virginia man celebrates Christmas. For 63 years he has devoted himself to teaching children about the true meaning of the holiday season.
After kneeling in front of the nativity, John Buckreis becomes “maestro Santa” — leading children and their parents not in “Jingle Bells” or “Up on the Housetop,” but in a verse each of “Oh Come, All ye Faithful” and “Silent Night.”
In case you think you’re having a Christmas hallucination brought on by too much eggnog or an overabundance of holiday films, rest easy. This is just how they do Christmastime at the Merrifield Garden Center just outside the Beltway in Merrifield at Lee Highway and Gallows Road in Virginia.
Rather, this is how Buckreis does Christmastime. The Annandale man’s approach to Santa Claus “as the modern-day St. Nicholas” has kept generations of families returning to the jolly old elf’s garden center home for nearly 30 years.
The 78-year-old tries not to turn his Christian message into a lecture or an in-your-face religious experience, but instead imparts his message subliminally, using “Santa’s Alphabet Calendar” instead of an Advent one, and mixing religious songs with the secular. If the kids have deeper questions about the true meaning of Christmas, they can look to mom and dad for answers.
“I turn it over to the parents,” said Buckreis, a parishioner at St. Michael Parish in Annandale. “I’m forcing the parents to become involved in Christmas and they love it. They want it.”
“This is the real Santa,” said one of those parents, Lisa Davis, who has brought her two boys to Merrifield for the last six years. “He makes you believe from the time he walks out until the time you leave. He includes Jesus into his performance. That’s what the real meaning of Christmas is.”
Let’s be real here, though. Most kids wait in line — sometimes for hours — not to talk about the New Testament, but so they can climb into Santa’s sleigh with their Christmas lists, eyes wide in anticipation that their conversation will lead to a toy-filled Christmas morning. That, after all, is their right as children — and part of the excitement of the season. But as they slide off his knee, Santa has two things ready for them — a lollipop and a holy card.
“No other place does that,” said Andrea Albanese, a parishioner of St. James Parish in Falls Church, who has brought her children to see Santa for the last five years. “It’s pretty counter-cultural.”
For 63 years — since he was 14 — Buckreis has breathed a Christian spirit into Santa Claus, beginning in the Buffalo orphanage he called home. In a homemade suit of dyed cloth and cotton balls, “I was considered a very, very ugly Santa Claus,” he said. He went door-to-door in wealthier neighborhoods, serenading households with Christmas songs in exchange for donations of used toys.
The unique St. Nicholas arrived in Northern Virginia in 1966, where he appeared at various small businesses throughout the area. But it was Merrifield Garden Center in the mid-1970s that offered him space — their entire warehouse from the end of October to the end of January — and complete creative control over his program and environment. Every year just before Halloween, the head elf re-creates his house in time for his debut at the beginning of Advent.
The Garcia family, including Kyle, 9, Miranda, 8, and Kaylie, 2, all parishioners of St. Francis de Sales Church in Purcellville, flocked to see Santa Claus last weekend. Not only has their mother, Michelle, been bringing them since the oldest was 2, but she herself used to climb on his lap — and there are photos to prove it.
Santa gives a reminder of the real reason behind the December holiday, Kyle said while waiting in line.
“Some people just think it’s about presents,” he said. “It’s not just about presents, it’s about Jesus.”
“The kids truly believe,” Michelle added. “They get the excitement of the traditions of Christmas and they know that there is a Santa, but they know the true meaning behind Christmas is really Jesus.”
Santa’s house is truly a work of art. Signs hanging from a ceiling covered in lights proclaim “Merry Christmas” in 50 different languages. Two trains run constantly, one around a little ceramic village, another elevated on tracks high above. Each day during his opening “press conference,” Santa Claus answers questions — his favorite food is chocolate chip cookies and his reindeer run faster than a jet — and opens a letter on his calendar. Each entry has a corresponding short “homily” that reinforces the religious spirit of Christmas.
“It’s a breath of fresh air,” Albanese said. “He puts the meaning into the season.”
Will McGowan’s daughter, Amy, attends the Academy of Christian Education in Reston.
This is her second year visiting the Merrifield Santa, “but we’ve heard about this from many people for many years,” McGowan said.
“He’s the best Santa,” he added. “He leaves the commercialism out and brings what the true meaning of Christmas is. It’s as simple as that.”
“I get the best reward,” Buckreis said. “If (St. Nicholas) was alive on this earth today, he would say, ‘I am putting Christ back into Christmas where He belongs.’”
Santa will be in Merrifield until Dec. 23, when he closes up shop and heads to the North Pole.
Printed with permission from the Catholic Herald, newspaper from the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia.