He’s held the most coveted role in the world for more than 20 years. Each winter, John Sullivan dons a fur-trimmed red suit, black boots and a fluffy white beard to enchant and charm Christmas lovers around the Chicago area as he becomes Santa from as early as August through December.
Sullivan’s journey to “becoming Santa” was unintended. In the 1980s he was responsible for coordinating the Pictures with Santa photo operation at a suburban shopping mall. When Santas were no-shows, he filled in and realized he loved the job. He soon became a regular in the red suit at Breakfast with Santa at Neiman Marcus in Oak Brook, and at a host of retail venues across the suburbs.
Sullivan relishes the outlandish requests that he’s gotten from children throughout the years.
“One year, a little boy told me he wanted a tarantula, and not one of the fake rubber ones, but ‘the real thing.’ His mother was behind him frantically shaking her head no,” he recalls.
“Recently a little boy told me he wanted a lump of coal. I asked if he’d been naughty and he said, ‘no, I just want a lump of coal because I think it would be cool.’”
Sullivan says he never promises anything other than “you’ll love what you find underneath the tree.”
There are memories that make him chuckle, and those that leave his heart full, he relays.
“Once at a senior community, a woman with Alzheimer’s commented, “’I know who you are but can’t quite remember your name,’ she said. But she still had the warm and happy feeling that Santa always provides,” Sullivan says.
“What I love best about playing Santa frankly are the littlest children,” Sullivan says. “When they’re five or six, they are true believers and are really into Santa; really believing. You can feel their love. They’re wonderful,”
Area Santa Houses this season will include downtown Downers Grove at the corner of Main and Curtiss Streets, the Riverwalk in Naperville at Jackson Avenue and Webster Street, and Community Bank in Wheaton on Wheaton and Front Streets.
Ceremonies and celebrations including Santa will be the Old Fashioned Tree Lighting in Wilder Park in Elmhurst on December 5, A Holly Jolly Christmas Celebration featuring West Town Chorus on December 7 at Tivoli Theater in Downers Grove, and the Once Upon a Christmas in Lisle on December 7 in downtown Lisle. The jolly man in red also will participate in Sing-A-Long with Santa in Elmhurst at Fitz’s Spare Keys on December 14 and 21.
Among the most popular Christmas events are the Santa on the Polar Express rides held at various locations throughout the western suburbs. “The children can hardly stand the excitement when the train pulls into the North Pole and they see Santa and Mrs. Claus waiting there for them,” says Sullivan, who has participated in the Downers Grove ride.