After his wife died, Herbert Hoelke realized he had been ignoring his calling.
It had been more than 10 years since he last pulled on the red suit — since he transformed his Halifax Transit bus into the North Pole and bought presents for his passengers.
“When my wife passed away last year, where I could not do things for her, I wanted to make other people happy — and myself happy — in her honour,” Hoelke said. “I guess I’m that kind of person; I like to give more than receive.”
He spent hundreds of dollars on presents last winter and set out for Mic Mac Mall.
This year, word of a real-life Santa began to spread online — alongside a picture of the kindly man who asked parents permission to give their children a gift and then handed mom and dad a gift certificate and a Christmas card. Sara Cole and her son, Winston, contacted CBC this week to praise a stranger’s kindness.
But Hoelke isn’t doing it for recognition.
“I’ve had handshakes from almost everybody, and I’d say half the women hug me and thank me for being so generous,” he said. “But I’m not doing this for the handshakes or the hugs. I do it to make people happy — and, again, in my wife’s honour.”
His wife, Carol, loved Christmas and he’s tried to carry on the traditions. Apple pies are browning in the oven and baubles decorate a white Christmas tree. Four stockings, including Carol’s, are hung by the hearth.
“When Christmas came my wife did all the decorating. I was the helper — if she couldn’t reach the top, I had to put it up there,” he says, laughing. “She did all the decorating and I’m trying to keep up with her.”
Although he has happy memories of Christmases with Carol and his adult children, Hoelke doesn’t want to speak of the holidays of his boyhood. He left home at 17 to join the navy, he says.
“Maybe that’s another reason why I’m doing this. To make other people’s lives happy… I just want to make it good for everybody else.”
He first played Santa nearly 25 years ago as a bus driver. He started small, wearing one of his two red suits and handing out candy canes. But when he saw the effect, he asked for permission to do more.
“People getting on and off of buses [are] always in a rush and they’re worried about what’s going on,” he said. “But then people would come on and they’d look at me and start smiling and … watch me giving out candy canes [and] wouldn’t even worry about the day.”
He proudly displays newspaper clippings of his time as the transit Santa, a gift that was interrupted after a passenger assaulted him. Hoelke required reconstructive surgery to repair the bones in his cheek and around his eye.
He retired from driving and, for a while, from spreading Christmas cheer.
“And then my wife passed and it all came back. Back to making other people happy.”
Playing Santa again
This week alone, he handed out about 150 Christmas cards and gift certificates at CFB Stadacona where he works as a commissionaire.
He’s already given out all the toys he purchased for the season. He plans, however, to be back at it next year — perhaps in a more official capacity at Mic Mac Mall.
“They hired me to be an emergency Santa Claus in case somebody was sick this year,” he said. “But I’m hoping for next year that I do get one of the main chair-sitters.”