Reminders of their Santa-and-helper days are apparent in the home of Tom and Betty Granter.
A note to parents: if you haven’t already told your little ones why there are a few extra Santas around sometimes at Christmas, do so before letting them read any further.
We’d discovered Santa’s real hangout — all that stuff about the North Pole was obviously a ruse.
With a hearty “Ho, Ho, Ho” and the trademark candy cane extended as a gift, Santa Claus barreled out of his bedroom on St. Catherine’s Street in Grand Falls-Windsor.
Truth is, this particular Santa’s hangout used to be on Valley Road, and brightening the spirits of Grand Falls-Windsor residents was his forte for more than 30 years.
Now in their golden years, Tom and Betty Granter have tons of stories and a lifetime of memories about being Santa and his helper.
Years ago, as a Kinsmen Club member, Tom had his eyes opened to the need to bring joy to some people in his hometown, so he started dressing up as Santa. Betty joined in, and the two have pursued the love affair with St. Nick together.
“After 60 years, we’re joined at the hip,” Tom told the Advertiser.
His first Santa suit was borrowed from Woolco — shops actually loaned them out for would-be Jolly Old Elves back then.
“Like the old fellow said, every man and his dog had a loan of it,” joked Betty. “One minute the stuff on his face would be squish and the next minute stuff would be falling off.”
Tom sang with the Anglican Church choir so it wasn’t long before he was taking engagements through the church, too. The Santa role was expanding.
“Once I got going, people were coming all the time,” said Tom of trying to keep up with the demand for appearances at a variety of events.
Besides the obvious reward of smiles on young faces, the choir gigs did bring another concrete benefit — a bona fide Santa suit.
“Shirley (the choir’s organist) and Bruce Dawe made one for me,” said Tom.
“We couldn’t get a mask to fit him, a least not one that could do him for an hour or two,” noted Betty. “Then, they came up with something, crocheted or something.”
Tom was hooked.
“Once I got the suit, I said, ‘Bett, if I’m going to be Santa, I can’t charge anything,’” he recalled. “Santa Claus don’t take any money. Anything people offered, we’d give it to someone not so well off as we are. We were only average people, but there was people in town that had less than us.”
Tom toiled as a shift worker at the mill. Betty worked in the school cafeteria and the couple raised five children, so the Santa season was always hectic.
“As soon as November would come, I’d have the calendar full,” Betty said. “I was never ready for Christmas for 30 years, but I was ready for Santa.”
A calendar was always on the table to keep track of all the requests.
“I had a secretary and didn’t even have to pay her,” joked Tom.
“This set my life for me,” he added of the personal satisfaction he gained from the experience. “It grew on me and my family, too.”
The Granters’ children shared in Santa’s activity, and Dad’s role in the community was obviously on their minds, even after they left to start families of their own.
Santa’s first bought mask was purchased in Calgary and sent home by one of the daughters.
“He got more reward than anyone else,” said Betty. “It was self-satisfying.”
Subhead – Memories galore
The requests for appearances came from all over: church groups, boy scouts, girl guides, private firms and unions.
“Some Saturdays we had nine or 10 things to get to,” said Betty. “We’d be out from 9 a.m. until 9 p.m. sometimes.”
Age and some health issues forced retirement. But while physical limitations put an end to their chances of getting back on the road as Santa and his helper, the couple has enough memories to last a lifetime.
Their eyes glow and their bellies shake with laughter as they recall some of the special moments.
“I should have started a book,” said Betty.
For Tom, the Santa days began in the ’50s, practically at the same time a young rocker named Elvis Presley was coming on the scene. It was common then to strut your stuff on the dance floor.
“I was a bit of a dancer myself,” he said. “I use to dance for the kids and they’d get a kick out of me.”
The dancing brought on some particularly warm evenings as well.
Betty recalled they were once booked for a party at the Oddfellows for a group of 30 nurses.
“It was every bit of -30 out so I had to keep the truck going,” she noted. “He used to sweat so much that some times we’d have to change all his clothes.”
The nurses knew about Santa’s dancing prowess and weren’t about to let him off easy.
“I danced with every single one of them in there,” said Tom.
“When he came to the door, it was like something you’d see in a movie,” said Betty. “It was so cold he was right white with frost and the steam was rising from him. I said, ‘My God, Tom, get in before you gets pneumonia.’”
Then there was the time she was afraid the town cop would nab her.
The Royal Canadian Legion was one planned stop, and with so many on hand awaiting Santa’s arrival, the only available parking spot was right in front of the door.
“Just tell them you’re driving Santa Claus,” Tom said before heading off on his assignment.
Against her best judgment and after some prodding from Santa, Betty acted like a bank robbery getaway driver and kept the vehicle idling and on the lookout for the coppers.
Relief was an understatement when Santa jumped in beside her and she was able to finally pull away.
She hadn’t driven far when the lights of the patrol car lit up the night sky and she was pulled over.
As luck should have it, Lou Horwood was on duty that evening and he was actually on the hunt for Santa to hook him up with a party at the Fire Hall.
The nervous time ended for Betty with an escort through town with the lights flashing.
“Lou still calls today,” said Tom. “He always begins by saying, ‘Hello Santa.’”
One of Santa’s favourite stops was at the candy shop — Ryan’s Cash Store — to brighten the evening for the cashiers.
“The girls loved for me to come in there,” he said.
Driving home one night in costume, the Granters were followed by a car that stopped in front of the store. A young passenger in the car had spotted Santa and wanted to meet him.
Santa stopped to visit the candy store crew and to hand out his trademark candy cane. The girl in the car got her wish to meet Santa, and received a candy cane to boot.
Another impromptu encounter was with a boy sitting alone on a curb.
“He had his hockey stick, but he wasn’t looking too happy,” said Tom. “I told Betty to slow down next to him, rolled down the window and let out a big ‘Ho, Ho, Ho!’
“Well, the head came up and you should have seen his face,” added Tom. “He lit up like a candle. I gave him a candy cane and some to take home, too, and he took off.”
Subhead – Met with mishap
As you would expect, performing around town for so many years involved the odd mishap. A few times St. Nick had to call in a favour.
Betty jumps up from the table to re-enact one of the eventful times when rescue was required to keep Santa on track.
“Here he was coming with his tap hanging off his boot,” she said, demonstrating the exaggerated footstep needed to keep from tearing the sole from his boot.
“I had another event to do that night, so off we went to the mall to the shoe store. I told the owner, ‘I need this fixed because Santa has another show tonight.’”
The boot was fixed and Santa didn’t disappoint.
An emergency trip to the cleaners was required after another visit to a local primary school.
“They were painting,” Tom explained. “Of course, when I said, ‘Ho, Ho, Ho!’ they all started toward me. I didn’t want to get full of paint so I started backing up and backed right into the paint board,” he said through his laughter.
The suit had to be remedied, so off he headed for another favour.
“I phoned and told Betty, ‘I got taken to the cleaners today,’” he recalls.
Locals were generous to Santa, and he often returned with gifts from his rounds.
“I told him one time he reminds me of the old family doctor in the movies that goes around to farms and comes home with chicken and eggs, except you comes home with socks and mitts,” jokes Betty.
“Sometimes it will bring tears to your eyes cause there was so much stuff that happened,” said Tom. “I was lucky enough to be able to bring some joy and it gave me a lot of happy moments.”
Donning his costume for the photographer’s benefit, the reason for the Granters’ joy is revealed.
Making Santa real for the masses was Betty’s territory — the suit, the beard, the hair, the entire outfit had to look just right.
Their ability to work as a harmonious team during the tedious challenge of prepping Santa’s beard is obvious.
“I could have been married to someone else who would have chewed the ears right off me,” Tom jokes.
“She would have told you to comb your own beard,” replies Betty, with a laugh from the belly that Santa himself would have been proud of.