DECATUR -- Santa is big into making a list and checking it twice but, when it comes to the festive wishes of Decatur sisters Amiah Waggoner, 4, and 2-year-old sister Cali, it was pretty straightforward: Amiah wants anything touched by Disney’s frosty Princess Elsa, while Cali loves anything featuring those hero critters from TV’s “PAW Patrol.”
Other kids aren’t so easy to please, however. The man who knows is a right jolly old elf remembered outside Christmas as Jerry Stephens. He was occupying Santa’s House in Decatur’s Central Park for the first time this year in the starring role but he has portrayed Father Christmas for 25 years at other locations, parades and private parties. And he’s heard it all.
“I think the strangest thing I’ve ever been asked for is a snake,” said Stephens.
Mrs. Santa, aka wife Jody Stephens, said Santa has developed a protocol over the years for handling live critter gift requests. “They have to have a note from their parents if they want a live animal,” she said. That way Santa knows how to steer the conversation. “And we don’t end up with kids being all disappointed and blaming it on Santa,” Jody Stephens added.
Other requests are enough to bring a lump of coal to Santa’s throat and make his eyes grow watery behind his glasses. “I remember kids who wanted a new house because their one ‘had bugs in it,’ ” recalled Jerry Stephens. “That was so sad.”
In other previous cases, kids push aside toy requests to ask if Santa can’t deliver their Army daddy home safely from distant war zones. “I say we could all pray for him, pray for his safety,” said Stephens.
Emotional rollercoaster notwithstanding, this version of Santa loves the role and is well-suited to it by patient temperament and looks enhanced by a bushy beard that is as real as the true spirit of Christmas.
“I’ve had a daycare in my home for over 40 years and so he’s used to kids and he likes being around them,” said his wife. Her husband nods his head in agreement and said part of the fun challenge of the jolly gig is being ready for anything that flies out of uninhibited mouths.
“Kids just say the darndest things,” he added with a conspiratorial festive wink.” And they tell you things their parents do not want you to know.”