John Gardner isn’t quite sure how it happened, but he’s sure it was fate.
Buchanan’s Native Plants needed someone to play the role of Santa Claus for its annual “Holiday Open House,” and Gardner already was in-house as one of its plant salesmen. He had the loud, lively voice and the look – reddish cheeks along with white hair and a beard – and just needed the fuzzy red suit to go along with it.
Almost as soon as he agreed to dress up and greet young children in the greenhouse of the Heights nursery, it was as if Gardner had been Santa all his life.
“I put on the suit and the ‘Ho! Ho! Ho!’ just came out,” Gardner said. “It was like magic.”
The 67-year-old Gardner stopped working at Buchanan’s more than a year ago but continues to serve as its Santa. He was perhaps the most popular attraction at the “Holiday Open House” on Dec. 1, when visiting families also were greeted by warm and sunny weather, refreshments and a live jazz band.
Surrounded by colorful poinsettias and some fans to keep cool, Gardner sat on a wooden bench, posed for photos with kids and listened closely as they told him what they want for Christmas.
“He’s very affable. He’s very theatrical,” said Melinda Kanner, Buchanan’s nursery manager. “He’s good. He’s very good.”
Gardner described himself as “Christmas to the core,” saying he’s enjoyed the festive holiday since growing up in the Christmas-loving city of New York. The longtime Heights resident said he likes interacting with kids and is amused by their idiosyncrasies, along with those of their parents.
He said the parents he encounters “range from slightly encouraging to a little pushy,” and he’s fielded a wide range of requests from their kids. They regularly ask for flowers, because sometimes they get stumped and flowers are what they see immediately around them, and Gardner once had two brothers who brought lengthy hand-written lists and prioritized them for brevity’s sake.
He has yet to fall victim to a bathroom accident – “Thank God,” Gardner said – but encounters crying kids from time to time.
“It depends on the age and I’m not sure what,” he said. “It’s contagious, too. If there’s a line of kids and the first one cries, they all cry. And if the first one makes it easy, then the others give it a shot.”
Gardner makes sure to remain in character for the kids and tried to do so when talking to a reporter. When asked for his name, Gardner’s initial response was, “Santa … or St. Nick … Papa Noel. It depends on where you’re from.”
He had a similar response when asked for his age.
“Hundreds of years. Thousands,” Gardner said. “Um, but my alter ego is … how old is he? … 67 now.”
No matter how old he gets, Gardner plans to keep playing the part of Santa. He said it’s become a passion along with gardening, which he also found later in life.
Gardner said he worked for 20 years as a marketing manager for the Houston Chronicle, which laid him off. He then got into horticulture and now has his own gardening consulting business called “Garden Guru.”
A gardener named Gardner?
“Predetermined,” he said.
Perhaps the same could be said about his annual job as Santa. Gardner said it felt surprisingly natural when he first did it a few years ago.
He gets paid for it, too. Near the end of Gardner’s latest stint as Santa, Buchanan’s general manager Kevin Barry slipped him an envelope and said, “We’ve got to make sure Santa’s reindeers are fed.”