On Dec. 8, Santa Claus will come into Cloverdale on top of a fire truck bearing his reindeer and sleigh.
It’s pretty neat for Santa, a 59-year-old Surrey resident named Keith Wutke.
“It’s cool,” Wutke said. “All the kids get excited to see Santa coming in.”
Wutke has been Santa for the last seven years, welcoming children of all ages into Santa’s House in Clover Square for two weeks each December.
Many people may recognize the red and white house, often known as the “Santa Hut,” as the small, square building in the middle of the Clover Square parking lot. It’s empty most of the year — during rodeo season it has been used to count votes for the chili cook off — but at Christmas comes alive with holiday magic.
“They still remember, even in the summer,” David Tung, building operator for Colliers International, said about the kids who walk past the building. “They say this was where Santa came.”
Tung has been the caretaker of Santa’s House since 2006, when Colliers took over management of Clover Square. Each year, Tung acts as Santa’s elf and takes photos of the families who come to spend time with Santa. Since Wutke came on board, the pictures have been easy to take, Tung said.
“He’s a really good Santa,” Tung said. “When you take a picture of [Wutke] his eyes really smile, [and are] really kind.”
Wutke didn’t comment on his smiling eyes, but did say you had to have patience to be a Santa.
| Keith Wutke getting ready to welcome kids into the Clover Square Santa Hut in 2015.
Photo courtesy of David Tung
“You don’t want to rush the kids because then you’ll never win that one for a picture,” he said. “If they’re a little on edge and not sure, they shy away pretty fast.”
“I kind of take my time and get out of the chair and show them the toys,” he said, “try to make them feel a little more comfortable.”
Picture-taking is an important part of any elf’s job. But Tung’s work in Santa’s House begins long before Santa actually arrives.
In early December, Tung and his wife spend three afternoons decorating the inside and outside of the house. They put up the Christmas tree, decorated with stuffed bears, and festoon the windows with tinsel garlands and sparkling ornaments. Beside the red armchair, Tung fills buckets with toys and candy canes. He estimates he buys about 1,000 toys throughout the season.
“I don’t want to spend too much money, so we just go to the dollar store to gather small toys,” he said. “But it’s really different because it comes from Santa.”
It comes from Santa. Those words embody the magic that Wutke and all the Santas who came before him try to bring to the Santa Hut. For Wutke isn’t the first Claus to spend his holiday season in the red suit.
In the late 1990s, Richard MacLachlan started as the first Santa Claus in Clover Square’s hut. He was 28 at the time.
“I was young to be a Santa,” he said. But, he added, “kids don’t realize.”
MacLachlan’s intent was to give back to the community, inspired by Cloverdale icon Bill Reid, and Santa’s House was the ideal place to do that.
“It’s not a big mall Santa; it’s maybe not as fancy. But it’s community minded,” MacLachlan said. “It’s a nice little spirit.”
That spirit not only exists in the men who’ve played Santa Claus over the years — including MacLachlan’s father Doug and Wutke’s nutritionist Murray — but also the people who visit the hut throughout the season.
Last year, people who visited the Santa Hut donated $1,500 to the Surrey Food Bank — $200 less than the year before, but three times as much as when Tung first started in 2006. Wutke sometimes receives mugs of hot chocolate from appreciative parents, and last year even received a donated suit from two elderly ladies who came in for a photo. (He plans to wear the suit this year.)
Four years ago, Santa’s House received a donation of toys from a man who had some leftover presents from a work party. Among them was a jewellery box with a ballerina figurine, which Wutke kept under his chair with some excess toys.
Not too long later, Wutke had a little girl on his lap who didn’t want anything for Christmas.
“I kept trying to encourage her to pick something, if there was something,” he said. “Eventually she said, ‘I would like, I guess, a jewellery box with a ballerina girl.’
“I reached under my chair and put it in from of her face,” he continued. “You could feel the magic.”
“I bet you she’ll never forget that,” he added, then laughed. “I won’t.”
This year, Santa will be available for photos each day between noon and 4 p.m. from Saturday, Dec. 8 to Sunday, Dec. 23. Children, adults, teens and pets are welcome.