Editor’s note: Parents may wish to review this article before allowing young children to read it.
If you’ve lived in Spokane for long, chances are you, your children or your grandchildren have sat on Jim Burney’s lap.
In 1974, when he first affixed a snowy beard to his clean-shaven face and donned a red, fur-trimmed suit, Santas were a dime a dozen downtown.
“We had five department stores in downtown alone, each one with their own Santa Claus,” he said. When he heard about a Claus opening at JCPenney, he thought it sounded fun.
“I’d taken some acting classes in college,” Burney said. He practiced his ho ho ho’s, and at the ripe old age of 26, he took his place on the upholstered chair at Penney’s. That was 39 years ago and he hasn’t missed a Christmas gig since.
“I love it,” he said. “The best thing is talking to the kids.”
After a few years at Penney’s he moved to the Crescent and was that store’s Santa until it was sold to Frederick & Nelson in 1988.
That year marked his move to Shadle Center and also the debut of his own beard – no more fake facial hair for this Santa.
Since 1993, Burney, 65, has held court beneath the towering Christmas tree at River Park Square. “Now, I’m the only Santa downtown.”
Much has changed over the years, but not Burney’s enjoyment of his role, nor his belief in the magic of Christmas.
“I’ve had five girls get engaged while sitting on my lap,” he said. “And no, no one has peed on me.” He paused. His eyes twinkled behind gold-rimmed glasses. “But a bird pooped on my shoulder once.”
The annual “Paws and Claws” evenings are much anticipated by people wishing to have their pets’ photos taken with Santa.
Burney’s favorite story involves a little boy who’d obviously been coached by his parents. He climbed up on Santa’s lap and when asked, “What do you want for Christmas?” he looked Santa in the eye and answered, “I want peace and love for everyone.”
Well, Santa knows little boys, so Burney replied, “That’s wonderful. Now, what do you really want for Christmas?”
“A machine gun!” shouted the relieved child.
Present requests have changed over the years. “When I first started, kids asked for dolls, teddy bears, cars and trucks,” he said. “They still ask for those things, but now they want Xboxes, iPads, iPhones and Skylanders, too.”
Yes, Santa needs to stay up on the latest trends. Skylanders, for those unacquainted with them, is a video game series that is played along with action figures.
And yes, kids still ask for Red Ryder BB guns. Burney said with a grin, “I tell them, ‘You’ll shoot your eye out!’ ”
Years of experience have made him wise in the ways of charming skeptical or fearful toddlers. “I know the art of Candy-Fu,” he said. He lures reluctant tots to his lap with the promise of a candy cane.
The absolute faith of children never ceases to amaze him, but one question amuses. “Kids will believe that I deliver packages all over the world in one night, but they do ask, ‘Is Rudolph real?’ ”
The only downside of the job comes when children ask for things that even Santa Claus can’t promise. “Sometimes they ask for their daddy to come home from Iraq, or just for their daddy to come home,” he said.
When asked if those requests make him teary, he replied, “Santa doesn’t cry. He stays in character and says, ‘We’ll see what we can do.’ ”
In the off-season Burney, father of two and grandfather of two, works at keeping his weight up. “If I lose weight, the parents complain,” he said. And he doesn’t shave his beard. “If I did, it wouldn’t be long enough at Christmas. I do trim it, though. Otherwise it gets in my soup!”
His day job is in keeping with his holiday work. He sells toys at fairs and festivals across the region. No. He doesn’t make them – nor do any elves. “They’re mostly made in China,” he said.
After almost four decades, the lure of the red suit hasn’t waned. “I’ll do it till I get too old and can’t hear what the kids say,” Burney said. “The very best thing is when someone jumps off my lap and runs to their parents and says, ‘I think that’s the REAL Santa!’ ”