For more than 20 years, John and Helen McMahon of Woodinville have been dressing up as Santa and Mrs. Claus to the delight of both children and their parents. The two are a fixture at the annual Lions' Club Christmas party, as well as familiar faces at area rest homes, hospitals, and group homes.
Photo courtesy of the McMahons.
Santa figures fit right in at the McMahon house. Helen McMahon is proud of her collection of Santa figurines. At last count, she had more than 100 of them on display at her home.
Photo by Andrew Walgamott.
by Andrew Walgamott
Woodinville's John and Helen McMahon have been spreading holiday cheer as Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus for more than two decades. Dressing up as the jolly old elves, they visit rest homes, hospitals, and group homes, bringing smiles to faces young and old.
The McMahons, married for 55 years, are longtime Woodinville residents. Helen's father built the first house on Hollywood Hill in 1923, the same house the McMahons currently live in. Their sloping 10-acre meadow holds a herd of cattle taken care of by their son, Jeff. At one time, they also raised pigs for heart research at the University of Washington.
John McMahon, a retired sales rep, became the Lions Club Santa in the early 1970s. Apparently, the former Santa was making the children cry, telling them he wasn't going to come if it didn't snow. John heard about this and volunteered at a club meeting.
"Santa is supposed to be a nice guy," John said with a twinkle in his eye that has never disappeared.
In the early years, John was helicoptered to different functions. He recalls circling the Space Needle and flying down Fifth Avenue, waving at people in the tall buildings. Sometimes Helen drove him to events. Then it was suggested she take part. She readily agreed, happy to be bringing joy to disadvantaged children and the elderly. Sewing herself a suit, she became Mrs. Claus.
From the very beginning, they've handed out Washington apples and candy canes to children who come to chat and have their pictures taken with Santa. The Lions Club has paid for the goodies, the photos are free, and the McMahons' time is volunteered.
Word of their work has spread to far places. They've taken their show to Children's Hospital, Harborview, Fircrest, Evergreen Nursing Home, Cascade Vista, Bothell and Auburn senior centers, many schools, and even some private residences. They perform 18-20 times each December, from Tacoma and Algona to Edmonds and Everett.
John has been offered jobs to sit in shopping malls and department stores, but has turned them all down. He likes instead to go out to people who might not get a chance to see Santa. The McMahons enjoy giving and receiving.
"We really get the benefit," said John. "Some of the kids come back before they leave and give us big hugs. Many of them give me things like scraps of paper with drawings on them."
The McMahons related some amusing and some touching stories from their years as the Claus couple.
A little girl sitting on Santa's lap scolded the old elf, "Santa, you gotta clean up your mess this year!" John later learned that the girl's mother had spread ash and crumbs around the fireplace and left "Santa's" boot prints on the floor.
Once, years ago, John and Helen stopped by the Ronald McDonald house on a rainy night. A little girl named Natalie opened the door and said, "I'll show you around, Santa." They visited with the children, giving out apples and candy canes. Just when they were about to leave, Natalie said, "Wait a minute!" She led them upstairs to a boy in isolation who was overjoyed to have Santa visit.
"Most of the little ones don't know," Helen said about their costumes, both of which she's sewn herself. With the older kids, though, John is a little more wily. Many of the kids are onto the Santa act, but still want to believe.
Once, John was taken by the police to apartments along Avondale Road. Kids came running up to the police cruiser, prompting the officer to say, "Isn't this funny. Usually they run away from us!"
John also tells of playing Santa for a University of Washington sorority. Led through a long hallway, he couldn't help noticing how messy the girls' rooms were. Staying in character, he said, "You'd better get your rooms cleaned up if you want Santa to visit this year."
At a fraternity house, a young man sat beaming on Santa's lap and said ecstatically, "Santa, we're like a bunch of kids." Santa replied, "No, you're worse than a bunch of kids!"
John tells of teenage girls who want Porsches and other cars. To them, he says, "I think you'd better get a second job!"
"They get a kick out of that." Helen said.
The McMahons also visit homes for the elderly. John tells a story of one sprightly lady of 96 who, when asked what she wanted for Christmas, said, "A Cadillac, an oil well, and a good man."
The two rely on "elves" in the community to donate gifts. Napa Auto Parts has provided toy semi-trucks. Albertson's also gives gift certificates for holiday food baskets to needy families.
John's favorite part of the job is singing Christmas carols. He sings "Silent Night" and saves "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer" as an exit song when the kids ask too many questions and want to see the reindeer.
"When we can't answer their questions truthfully, it's time to go," Helen said.
The McMahons don't know how much longer they will continue to play the Clauses. Last year, John underwent triple bypass heart surgery.
But they plan to continue giving to the community. Participation, John claims, has led to their long, productive lives. They have three sons, 13 grandchildren, and 16 great-grandchildren.
In a pause during their overlapping talking style, John said, "We've had a beautiful life together."
Without even the slightest hesitation, Helen agreed.