It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…albeit, it’s looking a lot different this year. The stores aren’t facing wall-to-wall shoppers, Christmas parades have been cancelled and instead of sitting on Santa’s knee for a photo, children are sitting six feet away with a plexiglass barrier between them and the jolly old elf. However, one Newfoundland Rotarian and volunteer is keeping the Christmas spirit alive by helping spread holiday cheer to children and their families in a very special way.
For the past 42 years, Bruce Templeton has been proudly playing the role of Santa’s assistant. Over that period of time, he has helped collect tons of food for local food banks during the Downtown St. John’s Christmas Parade; visited countless children, seniors and community groups; and each year, has taken 18 children on a magical trip to the “North Pole” to see Santa. He’s also written four books about his experiences, the proceeds of which have gone towards Rotary International’s mission to end polio. (With support, he’s purchased vaccines for 350,000 children and through the efforts of Rotary and others, polio has been stamped out in all but a couple of countries).
It’s little wonder, then, that Templeton was inducted into the Order of Newfoundland and Labrador earlier this year, as well as the International Santa Claus Hall of Fame in 2014 (the only living Canadian to have the honour), joining the likes of Mickey Rooney (who voiced Santa in multiple animated specials), Edmund Gwenn (who played Kris Kringle in the classic “Miracle on 34th Street) and artist Haddon Sundblom (who painted the iconic images of Santa Claus for the Coca-Cola Company).
With the reality of COVID-19, Templeton says he had to think of new ways to bring Santa and children together this year. So back in the spring, he and some colleagues began brainstorming. They learned about OBS (Open Broadcaster Software) and the wheels started turning.
“I would normally have, with my friend Santa, somewhere close to 60 visits a year. We generally start in later November with parades and that type of thing and we would conclude inside the Janeway on Christmas Eve,” he says.
“So how do we, with this pandemic, keep the dream alive for children and do it in a way that has never been done before?”
This year, through popular video conferencing service Zoom, Santa will be offering virtual visits (with proceeds going to charity), bringing children and their families together with friends and relatives whom they might not otherwise have the chance to see. Complete with green screens, festive settings (including a glimpse of Santa’s workshop) and studio lighting, Templeton says Santa is set and ready to go. The calls can also be recorded, making a very special keepsake to remember an extraordinary time.
“What we’re looking to do is create an experience for a family…but a family, at their choosing, if they want other relatives to see the call with Santa Claus, then they can easily do that,” Templeton says.
“The whole idea that we have to use technology for Christmas this year is something that my Santa colleagues everywhere are working on. We have to provide hope in this uncertain time for children in the world.”
Templeton is also working with schools and groups like the CNIB to bring Santa and children together, with special consideration given to those with various needs.
“We have learned basic American Sign Language, ASL, so that Santa can communicate with kids who are deaf. And we understand autism to the degree that you never ring loud bells. So sensory needs are important to Santa as well. So that’s where we’re going with these Zoom calls.”
Templeton says the annual flight to the North Pole, a partnership with Steele Communications (now Stingray), 99.1 Hits FM and PAL Airlines, will also take a different form this year, with Santa flying to the children if the children cannot fly to him.
It’s support from businesses like this, as well as Rogers Communications (who are providing the lighting for Santa’s Zoom calls), Bell Aliant (who also provided some necessary equipment and guidance), Newfoundland Power (who helped organize food drives during previous parades) and others that help make his work possible, Templeton says.
“When I call a business and say ‘I need help,’ I have never ever had the business turn me down. And I’m very, very grateful to the business community for what they do for me, to help me keep the dream alive for children,” he says.
“And I am extraordinarily blessed… there’s no way that I can do what I do without my wife Paula.”
While the accolades and awards are nice and appreciated, Templeton says, “that’s not why I do what I do.”
“I do what I do to bring hope to families in times of difficulty, to provide assurance that children are loved and respected…the greatest privilege is holding a baby in your arms on Christmas Eve and making memories for parents. That’s what it’s all about.”
To book a Zoom call with Santa, click here.