When John Suhr was in kindergarten, his mother took him to see Santa Claus at G.C. Murphy Downtown. The Lawrenceville boy was overjoyed to meet his idol.
As soon as he saw Kris Kringle, Suhr burst into tears and cried the whole way home.
Sixty years after that fateful encounter, Suhr, a locksmith for Pittsburgh’s Department of Public Works, is “Santa John,” the city’s premier St. Nick. He realizes the serendipity of his occupation (who needs a chimney?) and uses his annual five weeks of vacation time to immerse himself in the season. Playing Santa is a role he takes very seriously.
From his downy, white beard (it’s real!) and fuzzy, red suit to the twinkle in his eyes, Suhr embodies the Christmas spirit. During the holiday season, you can visit him every Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Heinz History Center in the Strip District. Santa Suhr also hears children’s wishes via Zoom at the Peoples Gas Holiday Market in Market Square on Saturdays from 3:30 to 8 p.m.
“When I was a kid and it was Christmastime, the whole world turned into Disneyland,” Suhr says. “When you stepped off the streetcar in Downtown Pittsburgh, there were incandescent lights everywhere. Every store put up an animated window display and train set. I have many great memories of Christmas.”
The longtime Carrick resident started dressing up as the jolly old elf 30 years ago to entertain his children. Once they grew up, he donned the iconic outfit for the neighborhood kids.
Through word of mouth, strangers started hiring him to mix and mingle at their yuletide parties. To prepare for the gigs, Suhr watched the 1947 classic, “Miracle on 34th Street.” It’s still his go-to flick for getting into character. (Edmund Gwenn won an Academy Award for his performance as Santa.)
A decade ago, Suhr accompanied city officials for the annual tree lighting ceremony and made an appearance at the WPXI holiday parade, a 30-year tradition that ended in 2021. The happiness he experienced waving to the throngs of spectators reminded him of his childhood Christmases.
Eventually, Santa John landed a gig at the Downtown Macy’s, where he and his grandfather had both worked as carpenters when the building was occupied by Kaufmann’s.
“It was like coming back home,” he says.
Suhr, who made an appearance in the locally filmed movie, “Love the Coopers,” is an expert on the history of Christmas in Pittsburgh and owns a large collection of print advertisements and trinkets that department store Santas gave to visiting children. Every department store from Gimbels to Woolworth had their own St. Nicholas. In the 1960s, Mr. Claus and his elves would distribute little cardboard suitcases filled with toys, coloring books, comics, stickers and candy.
These days, Suhr often gives his young fans a pin with his picture on it that says, “Santa Claus believes in you.”
When kids get to an age when they start questioning the existence of Father Christmas, Suhr suggests that parents encourage their tweens to continue childhood traditions for the sake of younger relatives and take part in toy drives or other gift giving events.
“That way they get to be Santa Claus,” he says. “They can sit back and know a kid has a present to open on Christmas morning because of them.”
Suhr, 65, doesn’t plan on hanging up his jingle bells when he retires. He rarely takes time off the rest of the year from being in character. You’ll often see him at farmers’ markets and outdoor celebrations in a red-and-white-striped T-shirt and sunglasses, keeping tabs on who’s naughty and who’s nice. In the future, he hopes to star in a Hallmark holiday movie and attend Santacon to share his enthusiasm for the North Pole’s resident with thousands of his bearded brethren.
“You have guys who love football or golf or hunting,” he says. “My thing has always been Christmas.”