Five-year-old Wesley Arnburg ran right up to Santa Claus and jumped up on his lap next to his older sister.
He carefully whispered into Santa’s ear what he wanted for Christmas just as sister Josie, 7, had done a few minutes before him.
Josie had quietly asked Santa for a monarch butterfly. Santa whispered back to her: “Oh, sweetie! I don’t know if I can do that.”
That Santa is Ed Linebach of Des Moines, who has been Santa to thousands — maybe even tens of thousands — of children on the city’s west side, throughout central Iowa and beyond.
Linebach has decades of volunteerism with kids from Little League to playing Santa for Make-A-Wish Iowa and Salisbury House’s annual Holly & Ivy Holiday Home Tour.
“I just always believed children are our greatest asset,” he says. “I think everybody needs to do what they can to nurture them and take good care of them and be good role models to them.”
Playing the role of Santa or Santa’s helper becomes an art through the years
After more than a decade, talking with children and playing the role of Santa is easy for Linebach.
“It’s second nature, and all it is, is seeing the kids and them running up to me,” he says. “Some of them whisper in my ear, and then I give them a little secret back.”
Children spot him from across the room. Their faces light up as he gives them a little wave and motions them over.
“Come here, sweetie,” he says to one little girl. “What’s your name?”
“Sydney,” she replies.
Linebach gives the appropriate amount of teasing to children to bring a smile to their face or even evoke a chuckle.
“That’s a town in Australia, you know,” Santa teases her.
A smile breaks out on Sydney’s face.
“What do you want for Christmas?” he asks.
When Sydney pauses, Santa fills in the blank: “Justin Bieber? You can’t have Justin Bieber.”
This only causes Sydney to smile more until she finally answers: “Well, there’s this Furby.”
Linebach greets each child with a hug, a smile or even a high five. He tries to guess the child’s age, and after more than a decade of practice, is within a year most of the time.
“Hi, buddy,” he says to one child as the boy approaches. “Give me a high five. What do you want for Christmas?”
The boy tells him a remote-control racecar is at the top of his list.
“You know how many of those I have going out? A bunch,” Santa responds.
Santa then asks the boy if he’s been good — a little good or a lot good. The boy quickly says a lot.
“I tell you what, if you’ve been good, I’ll do my best to bring you a remote control car,” Santa tells him.
Linebach has learned how to respond to children’s various Christmas wishes.
The boy’s older brother asks for an Xbox.
“Those are tough to get,” Santa tells him. “Just in case I can’t get it, give me something else.”
Linebach says he’s careful to make sure children know Santa can’t give every gift, and he doesn’t commit parents to promises they can’t keep.
After more than a decade of Santa-playing experience, Linebach has heard and experienced just about everything:
“Are you the real Santa?”
There have been times Santa’s identify has been questioned. Some children have even tried to pull on the beard and remarked, “You’re not the real Santa.”
Even the youngest kids are inquisitive, he says.
Linebach makes sure his beard is attached tightly and that any of his real hair is tucked back and not visible. He also has gloves with a light on the tip of the index finger that he says is the magic he uses to get into children’s homes to deliver presents on Christmas Eve.
“I’ve got a bunch of things I can do for the non-believers,” he says.
If he sees a child coming up toward the line, he listens ahead of time to see if the parent says his or her name. Then he calls out the child by name, which often elicits a surprised response from both the child and the parent.
Other times, especially if the child is older, Linebach lets him or her in on a little secret: He’s not the real Santa, but instead a Santa’s helper because there’s no other way for Santa to know what all of the little boys and girls in the world want for Christmas.
“Where are the reindeer?”
Linebach has his sleigh bells next to him when children visit. Any child who asks is allowed to ring the bells, but Santa warns him or her to be on the lookout for reindeer once they leave. With Jolly Holiday Lights being held in Water Works Park, there have been several times when deer have been out once children and their families have left from seeing Santa.
Linebach tosses any broken candy canes into a bucket rather than give them to a child.
“Uh oh. That’s some for the reindeer,” he remarks.
He also tells them it’s OK to bring or leave out celery and carrots for the reindeer.
“What’s your favorite snack?”
Santa likes all types of cookies.
“Where is Mrs. Claus?” “Where are the elves?”
Those are easy questions to answer, Linebach says. They’re at the North Pole making sure all of the presents are ready for delivery on Christmas Eve.
Santa, in turn, has some questions for the children:
“Have you been a good boy (or girl)?”
“Are you listening to your mom and dad?”
“Have you done well in school?”
Santa reflects on children’s requests for Christmas, other experiences
Nine-year-old Annastacia Bruce asked Santa for toys for her dog.
“Do you take good care of it?” Santa asks of the pet.
Annastacia assures Santa she does, and when pressed, says she also could use some shoes, too.
Her little brother Blaze, 2, tells Santa he wants a big monster truck.
Benjamin Turner, 3, asked for a Slinky, even though he already had one in hand. His baby brother Banner, 1, cautiously eyed Santa, and finally began to smile as Santa let him play with the sleigh bells.
But the smile soon turned to tears, and Mom came to the rescue.
Sometimes parents don’t, though, and that can be frustrating, especially the parents who demand Santa hold their child or the child sit on Santa’s lap while sobbing.
“I hate to do that because the kids are going to have nightmares tonight,” Linebach says. “The kid is going to have nightmares tonight and never want to sit on Santa’s lap again.”
A group of three sisters comes up to Santa, all asking for items from the movie “Frozen.”
“I want Elsa!” the youngest one yells.
That’s no surprise to Linebach, who says the top request from girls is a “Frozen”-related item or a Lalaloopsy doll.
Boys are a little more constant, he says. They stick mostly with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Thomas the Tank Engine.
What has changed is the age at which kids ask for things, especially electronics. Linebach says kids used to be 10 or 12 when they asked for computer games. Now, 7- or 8-year-olds ask him for a cell phone or video games.
“That’s one of the toughest things to do,” he explains. “You want them to be happy, but Santa can’t get everything. You never want to break a kid’s heart.”
Santa gently explains to children that sometimes he just can’t get some of the more expensive items they want or live pets.
“I tell them live animals can’t make it from the North Pole,” Linebach says.
It’s a relief to parents who often stand back, waving their arms and mouthing “no” about some of their children’s requests.
Some requests are more heart breaking.
Linebach says he’s had a couple of children in the past who have asked for a deceased parent or sibling to be alive again.
“It’s even made Santa have a few tears,” he says. “All they want is to have their mom back. Sometimes you have to be a little bit of a psychiatrist. I don’t mind it. It’s just dealing with kids when they’ve lost a parent or even a sibling.”
Every year he also gets a few children who say they don’t want anything except peace on Earth.
Then there are the few who say they don’t want anything at all. After a little bit of prying, Santa learns the children’s families don’t have much money, so they don’t expect to receive anything.
“You tell them ‘Santa will do the best he can to make sure you have something under the tree,’ ” Linebach explains.
Visit from Santa attracts young and old, even high school students who want pictures
One of the things Linebach says he enjoys about playing Santa is seeing how the kids have grown through the years. He sees thousands of children a year, but he does his best to remember what children ask for and then to make some sort of connection with the child the following year when he sees him or her.
“I recognize a lot of the kids, so it’s fun to see them grow year after year, and see how they’ve progressed,” he says.
Some children will be at multiple locations where Linebach is playing Santa, so he sees them more than once in a Christmas season.
Linebach visits with the very young and the very old. Mothers often hand him their newborn babies for the child’s first photo with Santa. Recently, he visited and took pictures with some elderly people who have late-stage dementia.
“That is as special to me as the children,” he says.
Regardless of who is visiting with him, Santa always has a knee for that person to sit on. He even coaxes the non-believers into sitting on his lap.
“There’s a few out there, but I think there’s less after they talk to me,” he says.
And when all else fails, Santa resorts to his secret weapon:
“OK, who wants candy canes?” he asks.