Santa’s helper talks about working with the big man in red for more than 60 years.
By Lindsay Tilton
At 82 years old, John Buckreis, “Dr. John,” has known Santa Claus his whole life. From growing up together in an orphanage and foster homes in Buffalo, New York to working at various stores during the holiday season, Buckreis has helped Santa spread the true meaning of Christmas for the past 68 years.
Santa is seen every year at the Merrifield Garden Center in Merrifield sitting in “Santa’s Headquarters.” The local nursery has hosted Santa and his loyal helper for the past 35 years where anxious children wait with their lists in hand to see the legendary bearded man in the red suit.
The Merrifield Santa began his role at age 14 when he fell asleep in a church and dreamt the spirit of St. Nicholas told him to be the “21st Century Santa Claus.” Buckreis and Santa made a red suit out of bed sheets and cotton balls, and went door-to-door in a wealthy neighborhood singing Christmas songs in exchange for toys. After collecting many toys, Santa went to a poor community and left a toy at each door.
As they grew up, the pair worked at various locations in NoVA, including Fisher Hardware in Springfield, Capper’s Nursery in McLean and Burke Garden Center in Burke until they made their way to Merrifield Garden Center.
Starting in October with a warehouse full of Merrifield fertilizer and gardening products, Buckreis transforms the space by decorating it into a magical wonderland reminiscent of Santa’s home at the North Pole.
Droves of families plan their visit to Merrifield—even waiting for two hours on some days. A typical day at Santa’s Headquarters includes Santa leading sing-alongs, answering families’ curious questions and spending time talking with each child. Santa also continues his tradition of donating toys by having a box for guests to drop-off toys for the needy.
Buckreis says, “It isn’t about sitting in a shopping mall and selling pictures, it’s about going back to the first Christmas and remembering what it means to us.”
How does Santa convey this Christmas message? After talking with each child, he gives them a Holy card with a special message reading, “Do kind deeds for others and you will always have friends.” Or, “The true gifts of Christmas are not material things.” Santa signs 2,000 of these cards every year.
When Buckreis is not working as Santa’s helper, he devotes his time to the Annandale community. Buckreis, a retired gardener from Merrifield Garden Center, continues giving gardening advice on his local show, “Gardening News and Views with Dr. John,” as well as a show called “Catholic Life.”
Santa Claus’ Schedule: Tuesday-Friday, 5-8 p.m. and Saturday-Sunday, noon-5 p.m. until Dec. 23