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.”
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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.