One of Santa Claus’ own helpers lives in Airdrie and helps fill in for the big man when he’s busy with other commitments at Christmas time.
George Burke-Dobie has a beard, a special Santa suit and received special training to interact with children and find out what they want for Christmas.
“You have to really love what you do and you have to have lots of patience,” he said. “I enjoy the kids. I enjoy that smile that comes out and if I can bring it out, that’s kind of my challenge and my reward.”
Burke-Dobie has helped fill in for Santa for more than 30 years at various corporate, private and public events in the Calgary and Rocky View County area. He also works with children and youth programs, as well as children with special needs.
He went to Santa School in Calgary a few years ago and learned how to project Santa’s voice and embrace his mannerisms.
“There wasn’t a whole lot of extra training, like a lot of stuff that I didn’t already know, but there was a few little tips that you learn and then you got to meet a whole bunch of other Santas,” he said. “It was a good experience. I really enjoyed it.”
An important tip he learned is to be patient with children who are scared. Rather than forcing them into his space, he approaches them and lets them have control of the interaction.
“It’s OK to be scared,” he said.
In order to pass Santa School, Burke-Dobie had to show off his Santa skills in front of a panel of judges.
“You went in your full suit and you would practice your entrance and you would come in and then you would get rated. But you were doing it for no one – you had imaginary children sitting in front of you,” he said. “It’s hard to basically let yourself loose and do your thing with nobody sitting there.”
Burke-Dobie said his schedule becomes very busy in November and December. He said he was working almost every day until Christmas Day. When the season kicks off in early November, he usually talks to the kids about Halloween, he said.
“I always ask the kids if they got lots of candy and I would ask them, ‘Well, I hope you didn’t eat it all already because you know what happens if you eat too much candy?’ And I’m expecting an answer of, ‘Oh, you get a tummy ache?’ And this little guy looked at me and said, ‘You get fat,’” he said with a laugh. “They come up with some funny, interesting answers.”
But it’s not always funny answers Burke-Dobie gets.
“One little girl sat on my knee and she asked me, ‘I would like to have my mommy here for Christmas,’” he said. “I was thinking she was away on holidays or working and I asked her, ‘Well, where is your mommy?’ ‘Oh, she’s up in heaven.’ I told her, ‘If you ever want your mommy, all you have to do is look inside (your heart).’”
Part of being one of Santa’s helpers is having a strong love for Christmas, which Burke-Dobie said he has always had.
“Just putting on the costume, as soon as people see it, they light up,” he said. “You can be driving in the car and it’s not only the kids that light up, it’s the parents that light up, too. You can bring a smile to somebody’s face and it’ll make their day.”