Two-year-old Demi Cramer can’t control her excitement as she stands on a street corner in her neighborhood, listening to the sirens that signal the arrival of Grain Valley’s own Santa Claus, and his Santa Bus.
She’s with her brothers, 6-year-old Declan and 10-year-old Deyton, and their friend 7-year-old Blake Brown.
“Santa’s coming, isn’t he?” she asks Declan, who nods in a agreement.
Soon, a Volunteers in Police Service car, accompanied by a Grain Valley Police Department vehicle, turns the corner and the magic begins.
Demi waves goodbye to her mother, climbs the bus and enters a land of enchantment. The bus is filled with red and green Christmas ornaments, a large chair and the jolly ol’ elf himself, Chuck “Santa Claus” Johnston, who has been delighting children in Grain Valley for more than two decades.
Demi runs up to Santa, gives him a big hug, climbs on his lap and motions for her brothers and their friend to join her.
Pictures are taken, more hugs are exchanged, and then, well – would it be a trip to visit Santa without gifts?
Santa opens his bag of goodies, and Demi finds the perfect stuffed animal, while the boys select footballs.
“Thank you Santa,” Demi says, without the prompting of her mother or brothers.
Then, in a low voice that only Santa can hear, she adds, “I love you.”
It’s the best Christmas present Johnston ever receives.
“I really don’t know quite how long I have been doing this,” said Johnston, who works in insurance at OOIDA (Owner/Operator Independent Drivers Association) in Grain Valley.
“I didn’t mark our first trip on a calendar, but I think it was 22 or 23 years ago. I was at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon and had a small white beard – I’ve had white hair since I was 35 – and someone said, ‘You should play Santa.’” Well, the rest is history.”
He bought a Santa suit, added some fake hair and went out into the town of Grain Valley – which had 2,000 residents – and in one weekend, visited every street, handing out a few hundred toys.
“The fake hair was awful,” he said, grinning, “so I just grew my own out. Santa’s looking forward to a haircut after Christmas.”
This year, Johnston and his hard-working elves spent four weekends – working 12-hour Saturdays and 10-hour Sundays – visiting every street in Grain Valley, where they handed out more than 2,000 toys, all of which were donated.
“It just gets bigger and better every year,” Johnston said, punctuating the comment with a Santa chuckle. “I love it, I love it so much. Just the other day a young woman came on the bus with her two-month old child.
“The baby’s grandmother came up to me and said, ‘My daughter was her baby’s age the first time she saw you.’ So, I guess I’ve been doing it quite a while, and I’ve loved every minute of it.
“This is the best gift I could ever get. To see the joy on a child’s face, to feel the love and Christmas spirit, in this crazy world we live it, I feel like the luckiest guy in the world.”
As the Santa Bus pulls away from Demi’s street, she waves with one hand while clutching her stuffed teddy bear in the other.
“Bye Santa,” she says softly, “bye. See you next year.”
And she will see Santa next year, and hopefully, for many years to come.