To his grandchildren, he’s Opa, but to the thousands of children he’s met over the years, Joe Nussli is better known as Santa.
But after more than 30 years of listening to children tell him what they want for Christmas, Nussli is finally hanging up his custom-made red suit and has shaved off his trademark white beard.
It all started when he was hired as sawmill foreman at Riverside Forest Products in 1977.
“One day the boss at Riverside said ‘I have a Santa suit and if anyone wants to put it on, go for it.’ I went in the bathroom, got changed and came out as Santa.
“I played Santa for the Christmas staff party that year and the year after that I was at Lavington Preschool,” said Nussli, 88. “I used to buy my own candy canes to hand out but one day Riverside CEO Gordon Steele said they would buy them, so the company helped me a lot over the years.”
After that first year, Nussli branched out into Christmas parties at Lavington elementary school as well as the preschool, the Boys and Girls Club, West Vernon elementary school and the First Nations Friendship Centre.
“I remember one little girl who was about four years old and when I asked her what she wanted for Christmas, she said ‘a horse.’ I said ‘that’s a big order.’ But she said ‘no, my cousin got a car last year.’
“And of course I always had a few kids who screamed their heads off who said ‘I’m not going close to that guy.’ It’s been lots of fun. You ask kids questions and so on and some of them take one look at you and scream.”
Nussli retired from Riverside in 1991, but has kept active ever since. Generations of children have known him as Santa, whether at a school or day care or in their own home with their friends. Every Christmas, neighbours with children were able to benefit from living close to Santa and were asked to invite a few other children around to visit with Nussli, who would present each child with a gift of a stuffed animal and a goodie bag with candy.
A visit to Nussli around this time of year would find him pouring over his calendar in his East Hill home, arranging and re-arranging his Santa appointments, figuring out how to be at two Christmas parties at the same time, but always striving to make it work so as not to disappoint a single child. He also keeps a binder filled with notes about what every child has received over the years, from stuffed elephants to Barbies.
A few things have changed over the years, and the most crucial is the white beard. Up until about seven years ago, Nussli used a fake beard until he decided to just grow his own for that authentic Santa look.
“I kept it all year long,” said Nussli, who has played Santa always as a volunteer and never accepts money for his work.
The father of two has four grandchildren and at one of the earlier parties at Riverside, his Santa disguise was no match for grandson Travis who blurted out, “That’s Opa!”
Nussli grew up in Hamburg, Germany, to Swiss parents, and still considers himself Swiss through and through.
“When I was a kid, we had similar traditions although instead of Santa we had Weihnachtsmann (Christmas Man), and we celebrated Christmas on Dec. 24. And I remember that I was so mad when I found out that Santa did not exist.”
Nussli grew up with two brothers and two sisters and moved to Canada in 1951 with one of his brothers.
“My brother was a cheesemaker by trade and I was a herdsman, so we were told that we could both easily get work in Canada.”
The brothers ended up at a farm in Kingston, Ont., with 75 cows to look after and the Nussli brothers having to learn English.
“I could speak French and German, and we said, ‘oh now we are on a farm we will learn English, but we didn’t, because everybody on the farm spoke German so it was hard to practise our English.”
From Kingston, Nussli travelled west to Calgary, where he worked as a cook at the landmark Palliser Hotel for three years followed by work as a meat cutter.
Further west still, Nussli and his then wife Inge spent 27 years in Golden, raising two daughters, Natalie and Tessa.
Moving to Vernon, the couple purchased a convenience store although Nussli was still working at Riverside full-time.
Nussli said he’s enjoyed every second of his time as Santa but said he’s decided to step down because he is finding it more difficult to get around.
“I can’t move so good anymore so having the kids jumping on me doesn’t work.”
Of course sales of toys may plummet. Every year, Nussli would wait until after Christmas and stock up for the following holiday.
“If I saw something on sale, I’d pick it up.”
One year when his daughter, Tessa, phoned him from the Coast to say she’d seen small bears on sale, Nussli’s response was, “Buy ‘em all!”
Nussli has been putting on the red suit and black boots for so long that the adults who bring their children to visit were once those same children who sat on his lap every December.
Before he steps down, Nussli wants to give credit to his team, especially Blanca at Blanca’s Hairstyling.
“She is quite the lady and she cuts my hair and whitens my beard and for the last 20 years she has never charged me.”
When his health allows — knee problems have plagued him for years — Nussli will once again climb into his sedan and head to the pool to enjoy his daily swim.
“I leave home at 6 a.m. and I’m back at 8. As soon as I get better I want to get back on my feet and back on the water.”
And his secret to a long and healthy life: “I eat a lot of garlic and I’ve always been active. And I always mix my food, so chicken one day, beef the next and fish on another day,” said Nussli, who smoked a pipe for years, but “I never inhaled.”
And a shot of rye once in awhile doesn’t hurt either, he said, with that Santa twinkle in his eye.