FAIRBORN — When Fairborn City Council Member Terry Burkert and City Manager Secretary Penny Davis begin preparing to play Santa and Mrs. Claus at the city’s annual Hometown Holiday Parade and Tree Lighting, it triggers the Christmas spirit within them.
“You see the heart when you do this,” Davis said. “It brings out the feeling of the season.”
The annual event, held Nov. 30 this year, included a Candy Cane Lane featuring free arts and crafts, games, pony rides and, of course, the opportunity to meet Santa and Mrs. Claus.
“Santa is a symbol of love and giving from the heart, not materialism,” Burkert said. “You have to listen to what the kids have in mind, what they want. Especially when they’re sincere, when they say ‘I want this for my brother, my mom and dad’ — even young kids have a love for giving.”
When Burkert is wearing the suit, he said he listens and doesn’t make promises. He will tell the kids, “I’ll get back with you,” or “I’ll see what I can do.”
“It’s a honor and humbling experience,” Burkert said.
While some popular requests this year included a PlayStation 4, drone and hatchables, other children asked for clothing, books or items for the family members. Steady requests he’s heard throughout his six years of playing Santa are a bicycle and Legos.
“Sometimes you can picture their family life,” Burkert said with tears welling up. “And you hope they have the best Christmas they can have.”
Burkert recently retired as a bus driver from Fairborn City Schools, but he remembered a previous year when a student who rode his bus came to visit him as Santa Claus.
“I said ‘hello Eric’ and his eyes got really big,” Burkert said with a smile. “I asked him if he lived on Marchmont. I winked at his grandpa and whispered ‘bus 37.’ His grandpa sent me a thank you card later on. I was shocked. The little things are the biggest things.”
Burkert said that “babies” are sometimes afraid of Santa, but the older children — between 6-7 years old — enjoy it the most.
“Some kids have never been to see Santa before,” Burkert said. “I think it’s the beard that scares them … I want to make the suit as respective as possible. Santa isn’t dangerous or evil.”
Meanwhile, Davis — who has portrayed Mrs. Claus for 11 years — shuffles around Candy Cane Lane and visits with children as they play games and create arts and crafts.
“I wander around and give candy canes … sometimes the kids will ask me to pass along a message to Santa because they forgot or were afraid and sometimes they will ask for a candy cane for their brother or sister.”
Assistant City Manager Pete Bales formerly served as the superintendent of parks and recreation. He asked city employees in 2005 if they would be interested in portraying characters for the event. Davis said she was surprised that Mrs. Claus was available because she assumed that a lot of people would be signed up. Davis added that she would love to continue portraying Mrs. Claus in the future.
She had to sit out for three years due to health. During that time, Burkert’s wife Sharon Burkert stepped up.
“It’s a privilege to play Mrs. Claus,” Davis said. “I always count it as a privilege.”
She prepares her costume about one week before the event takes place. Her costume was handmade and customized by retired Fairborn employee Natalie Wills. It includes pockets for her phone and keys.
“I love seeing the kids excitement in Candy Cane Lane,” she said. “There are so many activities.”
While Santa has a steady line at Candy Cane Lane, he eventually has to step away and lead the parade.
At that time, Fairborn High School Air Force JROTC Cadets, who portray elves, shuffle Santa and Mrs. Claus off to their carriage to lead the parade. Burkert and Davis nodded in appreciation toward the students and said they did “a fantastic job.”
Santa and Mrs. Claus formerly rode in the parade in a firetruck but later found that they enjoyed walking the route more. They gradually started riding in a decorated Gator, but now ride in a horse-drawn carriage. The parade concludes with Santa lighting the community Christmas tree located at Main Street and Central Avenue, but the kids can still see him for a little while afterward.
When the parade wraps up, Burkert and Davis agreed that they feel sadness because the anticipation leading up to the event is over but hope that they left the kids with a positive memory.
“I hope I did a good job and gave the kids a positive experience,” Davis said.
Burkert said he hopes the kids leave the event with a positive memory and that they are even more excited for Christmas. Davis agreed.
“I hope I took the best steps forward so they can have the memory of portraying that love and kindness is out there,” Burkert said.
Contact Whitney Vickers at 937-502-4532.