“Merry Christmas!” The exclamation jingles across the room and down the hallways. It brings delight to those receiving the greeting, even a small lifting smile. And the next statement brings excitement, at least from those who come to meet Santa Claus, “What do you want for Christmas?” The lists spill out as Santa keeps track of the wishes and dreams, of the toy names he recognizes from his elves. As whispers flurry with the question of, “Is this the real Santa?” children pause for their photo with Santa and continue to wonder as they meet Santa in community centers, schools, hardware stores, lodges and banks.

At the Deer Creek Community Center, John Saari has arrived as Santa for the past four years. He calms the fears of children and listens to their wish lists while coloring books and treats are offered. Two eleves ventured from the North Pole as well, Jazmine (9) and Jacobi (8) Saari.

Following is a Q&A about what it’s like to be Santa.

Q: Tell me about how you got to be Santa.

A: They had had a long time Santa doing it and he retired and the city—my wife and I did daycare—so the city clerk at the time sort of suggested me and that’s how I got it in. This is my fourth year doing it. So yeah, it’s been a lot of fun.

Q: Why did you want to be Santa? What do you enjoy about it?

A: I like kids, and like I said, my wife and I, at the time we ran a daycare so … I knew a lot of the little kids around too and I have young children. … So I still know what the toys are supposed to be and that sort of stuff, so yeah it’s fun.

Q: How do you prepare for being Santa for the day?

A: I try to think of some jokes ahead of time and otherwise just try to get in a good mood and enjoy it. We had a little baby right away, the first one didn’t cry so that’s nice. You get plenty of them that are scared and then you’re just trying to get them close enough so the picture can be taken. But, yeah, the first one was all smiling and everything so that sort of makes it easier the rest of the day.

Q: What would you say Santa means or represents to you or your kids?

A: It gives everybody a little sense of joy. And the weather outside now is not always the greatest so it gives everybody a little spark for this time of the year, to make it through the rest of the winter.

Q: How would you keep up the holiday spirit throughout the day?

A: Make sure you smile at everybody and have a kind word and a hi. You never know when people are not having the greatest days so even one little smile or hi or something. It might not mean a lot to nine out of the 10 people but the tenth person … it might help out.

Q: Can you tell me maybe a favorite story about a Christmas event that you’ve done as Santa?

A: I don’t remember if it was last year or the year before but there was a grandma that came in with probably like a 3 year old and I was the first Santa she’d sat on. They had tried a couple other Santas that year and I was the first one she didn’t cry for and stuff, and the grandma came back and thanked me for the picture at least. That was probably my favorite one. She had cried at all the other ones … They finally got a Christmas picture.

Q: Is there anything super crazy you’ve heard a kid ask for?

A: They asked for a Vexilar this year, one of the kids, the fishing sonar, otherwise … they don’t ask for a lot of crazy, expensive toys and stuff.

Jacobi hears her dad’s comment and interjects, “But I did. I asked for an iPhone 11.” And Jazmine shares, “I think the weirdest one was a little boy, he wanted a Christmas tree.”

A: Yeah, one wanted a Christmas tree this year. Otherwise it’s the normal tractors, cars, dolls, they get pretty specific. I remember growing up it was tractor or something but now they have the brand name and the size and the everything.

Q: I had no idea that kids were so specific these days.

A: Well I know my daughters go through the catalogs and they did for Grandma, and they said, ‘OK, circle some toys you would like’ and there were four things in the catalog not circled. (Laughs) So, yeah, I just think they probably know a little bit more from TV and Facebook and everything. They probably see the toys more often now than they did in the past.

Q: Do you think Santa’s an important part of the Christmas season? And if so, how?

A: I mean it’s Jesus’ birth but yeah for the little kids it’s a way to look forward to something and … for the parents it’s be good or you won’t get your gift but it can be seen as a reward. … He can be a good role model and a good lesson to the little kids to be good and stuff like that.

Q: What is your favorite part about being Santa?

A: The kids, like the story I said about the little baby. … If I can get a kid that doesn’t quite want to come over to come over then that’s the best part about being Santa, getting them to get rid of some of their fear and stuff because the beard and everything is scary. Deep voice, and yeah, it can be scary. But when they sit still and smile for Mom or Grandma then that’s the best part.