Local Santa holds holiday magic
There's holiday magic waiting around the corner at the Mariner Mall. The man in the red suit is a seasonal treat that brings smiles to young and old alike.
There’s holiday magic waiting around the corner at the Mariner Mall. The man in the red suit is a seasonal treat that brings smiles to young and old alike.
Eyes wide, a dozen 3-year-olds from New Horizons Children’s Center slowly approached Santa on Wednesday. His belly laugh rang out.
“Ho, ho, ho,” Santa said. “Hello my friends.”
The bravest boy approached.
“You’ve been pretty good, haven’t you?” Santa asked, settling the child on his lap and handing him a candy cane. “What’s your name?”
After a brief exchange, the youngster hopped down.
“You be a good boy, now,” Santa said. “Merry Christmas.”
The children took turns walking up to the man in red. Some were shy, one cried. Each was greeted with a gentle hello.
“He’s very realistic,” said their teacher Courtney Branley. “And he just kind of lets the kids take their time … I like him.”
The children trailed off to the sound of Santa’s belly laugh.
For 15 years, town of Lakeside native Jerry Nykanen has embodied the Christmas icon. It started when he was sitting at a coffee shop. Someone leaned over and told him he looked like Santa.
“Maybe I am,” Nykanen replied. He sent an email to a company that supplied Santas to malls, and got an immediate response.
The first six years he worked at malls in the Twin Cities. For seven weeks straight, Nykanen would don the suit for 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Some days, his knees were sore from the nearly 1,200 visitors. He saw a lot of children and heard a lot of interesting stories. One girl asked for a new heart for her mother. Another child requested a new father for Christmas. One boy wanted a garden hose under the tree. When Nykanen asked the boy’s mom why, she said that the year before, he’d asked for a roll of duct tape.
“Saw a lot of needy people over the years and a lot of spoiled parents,” Nykanen said. “The children have always been nice; some of the adults have been a challenge, but the children have always been good.”
For the last nine years, Nykanen has brought his holiday magic to the Mariner Mall. The job is a welcome change of pace for the Lakeside man.
“This is nice,” Nykanen said. “This is therapy, because we have so much time to spend with kids here.”
For Holly McLean of Superior, he’s the real deal. She’s been bringing her grandchildren to see Nykanen since they were babies. The local Santa is soft-spoken, serious and very grandfatherly, she said.
“He’s like the Mr. Rogers of the Santas,” McLean said. “He’s just so nice. He’s like a Santa should be.”
This Santa is so realistic, in fact, that even his grandchildren hedge their bets.
“One of my grandchildren when they were 8 or 10 years old said to me, ‘I know you’re not Santa, but just in case this is what I want for Christmas,’” Nykanen said.
The first time Nykanen put on the red suit, he was 18. Recently graduated, he was tapped to take the role for the Lakeside Elementary School Christmas program when the regular Santa got sick. This year, at age 72, he’s still relishing the role.
“I think you have to enjoy people to do the job,” Nykanen said. “Because you certainly get to meet a lot of interesting people.”
The holiday tradition of visiting Santa brings out the kid in everyone.
“I think you see them at their most genuine state,” Nykanen said. “People are at their most honest.”
Santa can be found sitting inside the Home Center entrance near the Diamond Royal Tack storefront 1-7 p.m. Wednesday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday. He will also be visiting the mall 1-7 p.m. Dec. 23.