Great responsibility: 'If you’re going to be Santa, you’ve got to be Santa'

Kevin Jackson bleached out his beard and was drinking a can of Coke when he realized he indeed was a dead ringer for the jolly old elf.

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You don’t have to be a child to believe in the magic of Santa Claus.

Just ask Kingston, Ont., resident Kevin Jackson, better known around this time of the year as Santa Kev.

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Jackson, an illustrator, comedian and former scare actor for escape room company Improbable Escapes, has spent the past seven holiday seasons rediscovering the magic that Santa wields on not only the lives of those he encounters, but in his own as well.

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It was while working with Improbable Escapes that Jackson, balding and with a full blond beard, was presented with the opportunity to portray Old Saint Nick for the company around the holiday season.

“I already had a bit of a beard, so I decided, ‘Yeah, OK, I’ll bleach it out and see what it looks like,’” Jackson recalled, while dressed in full Santa gear inside Kingston’s Toys R Us store recently.

So Jackson bleached out his beard and was drinking a can of Coke while examining the result when he realized he indeed was a dead ringer for the jolly old elf.

It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

“I found out how much fun it was and the reactions people were having just interacting with me,” he said.

So Jackson upgraded his suit to a more plush, robust one and started posting photos of himself here and there on social media. It wasn’t long before he began getting requests as Santa. At first, it was parents asking if he’d appear outside their homes for their children to catch him.

“Then I’d go in the house and entertain with them for an hour, tell them stories,” he recalled.

It was during those early visits that Jackson discovered the power of Santa, thus Santa Kev Presents was born.

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“I realized that when I look like this, I can actually affect people in a nice way,” he said. From there, he began shopping his services around to businesses and organizations around the Kingston area.

“I’ve teamed up with the OPP to help out people who were in crisis at Christmas,” he said. Then it was appearances at local businesses, photo shoots, commercials and dropping into special events.

‘When COVID hit, Santa went away’

Jackson said his parents instilled the magic of Santa into his life early.

“I grew up in the early ’80s,” he said, “so Star Wars was huge when I was a kid. My mom and dad were the kind of people who went out and bought all this really cool stuff, like He-Man and Star Wars. Christmas morning would come and Santa had been there and there would be all kinds of toys set up and all kinds of really neat stuff. It was always the best time of year. As I got older, and my parents are no longer with me, I kind of took over the mantle and we kind of do the same thing, except I’ve kind of taken it to the extreme.”

Over the past seven years, Jackson’s appearances have gone from sporadic to regular to online during the COVID-19 pandemic to jam-packed this season, with dozens of appearances planned.

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“When COVID hit, Santa went away,” Jackson said, recounting how he had to set up a home studio to film himself, to keep the magic alive in times of social distancing, isolation and cancelled events.

“I have the studio where I work in illustrating, so I adapted it and turned it into a little TV studio so I was able to make videos and promos for all the people who weren’t otherwise going to get to see Santa,” he said, stopping to wink at and address a passing child. “And now that’s become a real personal, fun part of it, too. I get all the details that I need and then I can write a very personal and engaging and sincere script, and then I film it and send it out.”

Jackson, whose bubbly personality, perfect white beard and friendly demeanour are a perfect fit for the role, said he even made the most of a bad situation last year when he mixed up his purple shampoo, which helps whiten his beard, with his daughter’s Colorista purple hair dye.

“I mixed them up and the next thing you know, 20 minutes later, I had a completely dark purple beard,” he joked, his wife recounting how he called her in a panic. Before undoing his purple ‘do, Jackson snapped some photos of purple Santa and sent them off to the Alzheimer Society of Canada and some other associations that use purple to raise awareness before he bleached it back out to white.

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“I made, I don’t know, water out of snowballs,” he quipped.

Great power, great responsibility

While mastering the role of Papa Elf, Jackson said he’s learned that with great power comes great responsibility. And Jackson takes the role of Santa very responsibly.

“The very first time I realized the magic that this actually holds,” he said, “I was in Belleville.” While peeking into a pub window to get some reactions from patrons, a bus pulled up across the street in front of a seniors centre and several seniors deboarded, spotting Santa Kev across the road.

“They saw me and I said, ‘I hope you’re being good,’ and gave them a wave,” he recalled, noting they all began shouting for Santa. “So I ran across the street and joined them in their common room for a visit.”

While entertaining the older adults, Jackson noted an elderly woman sitting off to the side, by herself. He was later told she had dementia, didn’t really connect with anyone and spent her days mostly just observing and keeping to herself.

When she spotted Santa, Jackson noticed a twinkle in her eye.

“I could just see this realization come over her eyes, and she started to focus right in on me,” he recounted. “Then she got up and started to shuffle toward me and said, ‘Santa, Santa!’ I put my arms around her and I said, ‘Oh, boy, I haven’t seen you in years and have I ever missed you.’”

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Her eyes filled with tears. As did the eyes of everyone in the room, Jackson included.

“I knew at that moment that there is no way I could not continue doing this,” he said. “To not do it now would feel like such a hole in my life.”

‘It’s brought magic into my life’

Becoming Santa Kev has allowed Jackson to bring extra joy to the lives of many.

“I’ve held newborn babies, I’ve done birth announcements, gender reveals, engagements,” he said. “I’m also bereavement Santa, so if somebody has lost a loved one, or they’re going through a fight with a disease or something like that, I can be their Santa because I take it so seriously. I come at it as Santa. If you’re going to be Santa, you’ve got to be Santa.”

And while Jackson has been a witness to the joy Santa brings to the lives of nearly everyone he encounters, what he wasn’t prepared for was the joy the role has brought to his own life.

“It’s brought so much magic into my life,” he said. “And that poured into my kids. My kids are honorary elves and they get to help me raise money for gifts.”

He’s been able to support causes and events that are near and dear to him, Jackson said, plus those that are meaningful to others.

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“It’s been a pretty amazing time, actually,” he said. “When I started it, I intended it to be fun and a lark, but at the same time, I wanted to really inspire that little twinkle in kids. But I’ve gotten to turn kids around, back into believing, and turn six-foot-tall men into giggling little boys who shout ‘Santa!’”

This year, Santa Kev opened the season at Bath’s Holiday Bizarre and will make dozens of appearances in the region, including two Sensory Santa events that Jackson said are near and dear to his heart.

“We’re doing two — one in Yarker and one in Napanee — for children with disabilities or sensitivity to noise and overstimulation,” he said. “They can have some quiet, one-on-one time with Santa and get their picture taken with Santa when they’re comfortable, not like a factory trying to shove the kids through. I have a few tricks for getting them won over.”

Post-Christmas blues

And when it’s all over, come Dec. 26, a short bout of the post-Christmas blues will inevitably follow, Jackson said.

“It’s like being a performer and walking off stage: you have all the adrenalin and you have nothing to do with it. Everybody is over it, they’re tired on Boxing Day and I’ve just been inundated for six weeks with hugs and magic and people waving and hanging out their car windows to say hi. When it’s all over, it’s a little weird. My beard goes back to the other colour and the hardest thing is I’ve got to remember to stop winking at kids,” he quipped.

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He might not be donning the red suit and dying his beard for another 11 months, but Jackson said he won’t have to look farther than his own home to feel that Santa magic, which has touched his family in ways he could never have imagined.

“Watching my kids get inspired by it,” he answered, when asked what the best part of the Santa Kev experience has been. “My youngest, she’s eight and I’ve been doing this since she was two, so she hasn’t known Christmas without Daddy being Santa. Our family motto is: Be good, be kind, be helpful and stay weird. We say that every day when we drop them off for school and they seem to have really taken that in.

“They’re both advocates for helping other children,” Jackson said of his kids. “If they see somebody doing something wrong or getting hurt or being bullied, they will step up and go over and kind of take them under their arms. That makes me pretty proud.”

The magic of Christmas can be a year-round spell, Jackson said.

“The best thing is just what my kids are learning and getting out of it, especially in these times when everything is so dark and we’re always waiting for the next catastrophe,” he said. “Well, my kids, all they see is hope and smiles and sunshine. They have down days, of course, but the joy in our lives is so much louder than the negative stuff that they’re able to actually still be kids. And that’s super important to me.”

And to all a good night, Santa Kev.

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