A Life's Story

December 22, 2018

Setting the bar for Santas

Brian Sanderson, 77, embraced, embodied the spirit of Christmas

By Kevin Rollason

After a child pulled off his fake beard, Brian Sanderson decided to take his role of Santa Claus to the next level.

“He came home and he said, ‘I’m going to grow my own beard,’” Sanderson’s step-daughter-in-law, Kathy Bailey, said recently. “The first six years, he painted it white because it wasn’t grey enough. But then, when he got older, he didn’t have to do it anymore.

A studio portrait of Brian 'Santa' Sanderson (Hans Arnold)</p>

A studio portrait of Brian 'Santa' Sanderson (Hans Arnold)

“He loved being Santa. It’s what he wanted to do. He loved it and lived it 24-7, 365 days a year.”

Sanderson died on Oct. 31. He was 77.

Sanderson was well-known in Winnipeg for playing the big guy in the red suit who would spontaneously let out a “ho, ho, ho” to thrill children.

He first played Santa at Portage Place shopping centre, and later became the Santa at Polo Park for more than two decades. He had one of his dreams come true when he sat in the sleigh during the city’s annual Christmas parade. He ended up doing it three or four times.

As well, Sanderson also played Santa in several movies, including Beethoven’s Christmas AdventureHome Alone: the Holiday Heist, and various Hallmark-branded seasonal movies.

Bailey said she doesn’t know what sparked Sanderson’s love of playing Santa. However, when he was married to Barbara, his second wife of more than 30 years prior to her death, they entertained at children’s parties and company picnics as clowns Smiles and Chuckles.

After Sanderson retired, he met Lillian Hallaren-Harrison and they became known as Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus. He had three children while married to his first wife, Doreen.

“I remember him saying he’d always felt that being Santa was his calling,” Hallaren-Harrison said. “He always said he would be Santa until he was gone, and each year he seemed to get even more joy out of it.”

A Calling card photo of Brian “Santa” Sanderson with Lillian Hallaren-Harrison his partner of 11 years. (Supplied)</p></p>

A Calling card photo of Brian “Santa” Sanderson with Lillian Hallaren-Harrison his partner of 11 years. (Supplied)

Whenever Sanderson encountered people, “it was always, ‘Tah-tah for now’ — he never said goodbye to anybody.”

The future Santa Brian wasn’t born at the North Pole, but further south in Saskatoon. He grew up in the Winnipeg neighbourhood of Fort Rouge, the son of Clarence and Mary, with his two brothers, and went to Churchill High School, where he first got the acting bug. He performed with Rainbow Stage in a few productions after leaving high school.

Later, Sanderson worked in Bristol Aerospace’s human resources department, before finishing his career working in the plant at MacDon Industries Ltd.

Trevor Smith said he was living in the United Kingdom when Sanderson hired him for Bristol in 1975.

“He always had this mischievous grin spreading from ear to ear when I saw him,” Smith said. “And he was a kind guy. He would visit palliative care homes. Rather than a priest, they would get one last visit from Santa for those who wanted to see him... he took being Santa very seriously.”

Smith said when he first met Sanderson “he didn’t have a beard. He actually looked like Austin Powers — this was way before (the movie) Austin Powers came out — but the first time I saw that movie I thought, ‘There’s Brian Sanderson.’”

Gord Holloway volunteered at Assiniboine Park Zoo, along with Sanderson and his partner.

“They were at the Tundra Grill,” Holloway said.

“It didn’t matter if he wasn’t dressed as Santa, the kids would recognize him and he would say hi as Santa. He was like what you would expect a Santa to be. He looked like Santa, he was jovial, and he was great around the children. He would say ‘ho, ho, ho’ and ask they were a good boy or girl because Santa is watching them.

“He brought so much joy to so many children over the years and will continue to be remembered, especially during the Christmas season... He was just a really wonderful guy.”

Polo Park manager Peter Havens said he only saw Sanderson in Santa action one year, but quickly discovered how the man personified the role.

“He was amazing,” Havens said. “He was very patient. He really embodied the true spirit of Christmas. He would take the time with kids, you never felt you had to rush people. That’s so important because the kids watch Santa and when they get their chance, he was just sweet with them.

“He set the bar for Santas.”

Bailey said Sanderson belonged to the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas, attending conferences in the United States. He found time to be a member of the Winnipeg Golden Chordsmen barbershop harmony group.

She said it was easy to spot Sanderson around the city when the grass was green instead of covered with snow. “He had a red sequined jacket in summer, and he had red shorts and different shirts.”

He was a part-time Santa for the first few years, but after he retired at 65, for the last 13 years he was Santa full time.

“He was just exhausted after Christmas. And he wasn’t Santa to us. To us, he was our dad,” Bailey said.

Hallaren-Harrison echoed the sentiment: “I’m really going to miss him, not just as Santa, but also as a human being. He was my very best friend and companion.”

Bailey said this first Christmas without Santa Brian will be tough. Sanderson had surgery a few months ago, and was on the road to recovery when he died unexpectedly.

Five days before his death, Sanderson posted on his Facebook account while he wouldn’t be working as Santa at Polo Park this year — due to his being unable to have children sit on his lap — he was looking for engagements at corporate gigs or family gatherings.

Sanderson is survived by five children, 12 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

He is also survived by his partner, Lillian, and her two children and four grandchildren.

And, as Santa Brian would say, tah-tah for now.

kevin.rollason@freepress.mb.ca

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