For the past 12 years, Buford resident Derek Dugan has donned the famous red suit as Santa Claus, to the delight of countless children — and likely adults, as well — to not only spread Christmas cheer, but to offer comfort for those in need, as you’ll read in this Q&A. 

DEANNA: Santa, in regard to children’s wishes and requests, what are the most common you receive? 

SANTA: Toys, plain and simple. Most ask for toys, specifically, POKEMON (anything, especially cards), LEGOS, they don’t know which ones when asked, they just mention LEGOS. SquishMallow, the new craze that keeps moms and dads alike looking for availability and within their budget. Dinosaurs — T-Rex especially is still the king of requests. Doll houses are still popular. Younger children, ages 3 to 4 boys, trucks, excavators. Girls — teddy bears, one of my favs as well to be honest!

DA: What are some unusual or unique requests you have gotten that have stood out? 

SANTA: Requests to bring a parent or grandparent back. (This happens more than you would think.) Requests for a last visit of a passing child. Listening to the heart of a young teen going through tumultuous times with parents who have decided to separate and possible divorce, and unable to share their feelings openly with either one, yet for some reason the sharing began with me. I once received a letter from a child to not come to their house and if I did come down their chimney their Rottweiler would be waiting for me …

One of the most impressive requests was from a child (approximately 6 years old) who had just spent some time with me in the chair. He had left the set with his parents only to return and wait at the exit with his parents while I visited with another. Once the visit was completed, the set manager came to me and asked if I would mind seeing the child once more — the child had something that was bothering him, and he needed to speak to Santa about it. When the child approached, their gaze was downward, and the child didn’t even look at me. I quietly asked the child what it was that they needed to discuss (and) their response was as quiet as a whisper, and the voice said, “I need a present for my enemy.” I asked again since I may have misunderstood the remark. Once again the child said, “I want to ask for a present for my enemy.” 

I looked up at the parents standing outside the set behind the velvet ropes who were now holding each other’s hands, and nodding towards me. 

I placed my gloved hand under the child’s chin and lifted their face so I could see their face and eyes. Tears were welling up in their eyes and I could see the child was deeply moved by this request being made. I asked quietly, “How could someone so young have an enemy?” To my response came a whisper from the child, “They’re just a bad person.” So I moved ahead, with my next question, “So this enemy of yours, what do they need as a present, is there something special they require?” The answer came followed by tears. The child spoke once again, softly, so no one on the set could hear, “My enemy’s grandfather is in the hospital and is very sick, and they might die.” The child continued, “If you could make them better and well again, maybe my enemy wouldn’t be so mad and mean.”  

The response sat me straight back into my chair, and looking at the parents, I felt overcome with a sadness in my heart, yet overwhelmed by love for this child and their unselfish request. It took a few minutes for me to collect myself as I leaned forward once again towards the child to respond to the request asked. “Dear child, one thing is for sure, your heart is full of love for your ‘enemy,’ and I think your enemy is no longer, but in your heart you know and have love for this person which is demonstrated and shared in your request, so let me explain that while your request is one of love and hope, I will commit my prayers for his grandfather to remain well for as long as the universe sees their life wish fulfilled. I cannot promise that I can make him better, I can however offer my prayers up so the angels might hear, and they can be carried upward.”  I continued, “As a matter of fact, may I offer up a prayer with you, right now, so that we can work together for the wishes to be carried out, you and me right now, can we do this together?” The child nodded, and came closer to me. I held out my hands so the child could place their hands in mine, I glanced at the parents, and as well they too bowed their heads, and as I looked around the set crew followed suit as well as the other people in line. I then bowed my head and quietly said a prayer with this young child for their “enemy’s” grandfather. Once I was finished I opened my arms and smiled at the youngster, tears were still flowing, yet I sensed some bit of relief in their heart. “You know something else,” I asked the child, “I think your heart was healed because I don’t believe you have an enemy any longer,” and to that, the child responded with the first smile I had seen in a while. I whispered, “Merry Christmas,” as I walked the child back to their parents and before I knew it, hugs from the parents and child ensued. Shortly after they departed.

At that point, the set took a break to collect ourselves. 

DA: Are there any wishes or requests over the years that have particularly moved you? 

SANTA: The one mentioned above and this one: I was departing the set one night, and heading towards my car to return to my hotel for the night. All of a sudden a van pulled up in front of mine screeching the brakes to a rapid stop, just before me. The woman driving the van jumped out of the van and was pleading for help, she flung open the side door of the van and inside belted to a seatbelt was a child of maybe 4 or 5 years old, screaming at the top of their lungs and crying out loud! The woman pleaded with me to try and calm the child down and continued to explain the child’s father while in the mall suffered a heart attack and the ambulance was taking the father to the hospital and for some reason this woman saw me coming out of the mall, and thought I could help. 

I was shocked to say the least, and without regard to surroundings or anything I stepped into the van and tried calming the child, speaking to the child softly in hushing sounds to get their attention on me rather than the terror they were experiencing at this moment. I began singing “Silent Night” for some reason, it was the first song that popped into my head, didn’t question it, just went with it, and in a moment the child stopped screaming, eyes got wider, and as the final tears escaped her eyes, and the nose bubbles ended, the child began to sing with me. The woman driver placed her hand on my shoulder and began to sing along with the two of us and in a moment it was truly a silent night. I looked back at the woman, and said to her, “Well, looks like our work is done here, and let’s just let the angels take it from here.” And to that, the woman hugged me as we said our goodbyes and Merry Christmas.

In a moment the van took off towards the hospital. The parking lot was empty, and only one light shined above. I noticed it was the only light in the parking lot, and the light was shining on my car.” 

DA: Do children ask you personal questions? If so, what do they ask most often? (I’m sure children can be very curious about you. I find in writing these questions that I am particularly curious, too.) 

SANTA: Personal questions: How did I get here? How old are you? Do you really eat all the cookies we leave out for you on Christmas Eve? When was the last time you shaved? How long have you had that beard? Do you and Mrs. Claus make elves? How many babies do you have? Do you have any animals at the North Pole? Where did you meet Mrs. Claus?” 

DA: Is there anything about this year or this season in particular that you think makes being Santa an even more important role? 

SANTA: Life is changing for Santa and how people see Santa, how Santa is being characterized and perceived by producers and directors, by Hollywood, and by the evolution of the culture we are all a part of, and that which we all contribute to, some good, some bad. Sometimes it’s a difficult task to understand which is which, and many feel the dividing line is so much more blurred today. The role of Santa comprises a great deal of what some may be lacking in the world we live in today … LOVE, JOY, HAPPINESS, FORGIVENESS, HONESTY, RESPECT, HONOR, HEART, these are just a few. More important role, indeed. Take a look at the world we exist in, people, children are open to so much more media and influence today more than ever. Santa has to be balanced, has to see and listen to both sides without being a judge or advocate for either. Yet, especially with the latest Hollywood release of ‘Violent Night’ with Santa being a Bad***, Kick*** Yule Log head splitter, it makes it more difficult for the charming, jolly, cookie-munchin’ elf to gain traction. Despite this, as I stated, the character of Santa is going through metamorphosis of his or her own. More black Santas are coming to market, Mrs. Claus is getting more notoriety and is no longer seen in back as a supporting figurine and more of an equal partner in providing the holiday seasoning! Asian and Hispanic Clauses are coming to town and our cultural blending is becoming more apparent. Santa’s not just an “old, fat white guy anymore,” and many more women are taking on the role — so important, indeed, all humans to exist need Love Require Happiness and Joy to survive, and despite other influences in our lives that are good and bad, it’s good to know the Real Santa (no matter what color, or persuasion) does have a code to live by in thought, word and deed.

DA: What’s your favorite thing about being Santa? (The variety of cookies would be high on my list.) 

SANTA: Cookies are great, I still have to watch my sugar intake …

The opportunity to demonstrate to children and adults that there is still goodness and acceptance of one another despite any differences that people may have, believe in or act upon. I am here to be of service to the “humankindness” that might be lacking in someone’s life. I am not the end all, be all. I am only an Ambassador of The True Spirit of Christmas, which is Love, Joy and Light. Someone once told me, “Yeah, it’s cool that you’re Santa, but I believe in God.” My response, “Yeah, I work for the Big Guy!” I support the awesome tale told so long ago. And for those who choose not to believe in that story and still believe that Christmas for them is more about family, friends sharing time together, love and joy, I cannot find any fault in that either. Years ago a story was told that, during the brutal battle between warring countries, a ceasefire was orchestrated to stop all fighting in honor of a “Silent Night.” Wouldn’t it be nice if it lasted for much more than one night?

DA: Conversely, what might be the toughest part of being Santa? 

SANTA: Toughest part of being Santa, besides bending over to pull on my boots and the altering of the waistline, the answer is — time. Our lifespans, depending on who you reference or ask, which can mean 1,742 years, 199 years, etc., yet I wonder how long Santa has left in the changing culture in the U.S. and beyond. The other answer would be having the capacity to hear all stories and in some ways hope that by listening we can help resolve some heartache, and knowing in some cases we cannot. After all, many expect us to be magical — sometimes by grace it happens!

DA: While I have you, Santa, I’ll venture to ask … what is the true meaning of Christmas? 

SANTA: WOW! That one, eh? I’ll answer of which and who I am … “Light.” For me that is the TRUE meaning. From the very beginning since I can remember it’s always been about the LIGHT. The Light of Love, the Light of Hope, the Light of Joy! I have always been in search of more Light! In what I do as a person, as a father, as a friend, a husband, grandfather, you get the idea. One of my favorite songs that I sing while I’m walking around is “This Little Light of Mine, I’m gonna Let it Shine!” I love that song and find myself humming or whistling it while I work, while I shop for groceries, etc. The powerful story of the Birth of Christ was ushered in by the song and light of the heavenly hosts, this light which then became the beacon for my journey. I’ll say I’ve gone off that path once in a while and admit I have my own limitations, but always know there is this light that still fuels my soul and my ambition, as well as guides me to strive towards being a better person.

Santa Derek visits with guests at the Lodge at Lake Lanier Islands and Margaritaville. He also attends private functions. For more information, you’ll find Santa Derek on Facebook here

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Deanna Allen has served as editor of the North Gwinnett Voice since June 2021. Effective communication and creative design are her passions.

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