Story by Leslie Dinaberg
There won’t be any snow in Santa Barbara this December, but John Dickson’s house will be transformed into the North Pole nonetheless.
It all started with a wayward phone call back in 2006. Along with the tourist-related www.SantaBarbara.com website, Dickson owns the business line, 1-800-SANTABARBARA, just one digit off from 1-800-SANTACLAUS. When he activated the phone number, his first call was from a little boy. “He asked Santa Claus for a blue truck, a pony and a spider, an actual crawly creepy crawly spider,” laughs Dickson. “It was a kid so I just played along with it.”
A few minutes later another call came in. “Hi Santa. I love you.” This went on all day and not wanting to break the hearts of the little ones, he cheerfully played along. Word got out and local news outlets ran with the story. Soon Dickson was taking questions from Los Angeles Times, CNN, MSNBC and Associated Press, as well as calls from hundreds of children.
“We got calls from 45 states or something. They came from all over the place and you get the accents, which was very very cute. ‘Yes ma’am, yes sir,’” says Dickson, still marveling at the phenomenon the Accidental Santa has become. “Sometimes it’s so hard for kids to get through that they’ll get their brother and their sister and the neighbor and it’s a 20-minute call.”
He answered so many calls that first year that he moved a mattress into his home office to make it easier to catch a bit of sleep. The calls have continued at a robust pace since that first year, but Santa’s army of helpers has also grown into more than 500 volunteers over the years. About 80% come back every year, including Dickson’s new bride Sharon, who has been a die-hard volunteer since the beginning.
Dickson doesn’t accept donations. “I just keep it simple. Just kids and volunteers answering phone calls. …I’ve kept it exactly the same every year. We probably get somewhere between 200,000 to 500,000 calls attempted, and we answer about 20,000 calls,” he says.
“I try to talk to at least 1,000 kids a year,“ says Dickson. “But it’s a real community effort now. I always get a kick out of the fact that, of all places, the place that for sure has no snow becomes the North Pole. It’s just a wonderful holiday tradition.”
For more information or to volunteer, visit www.AccidentalSanta.com.
This story originally appeared in the Winter 2012/13 issue of Santa Barbara SEASONS Magazine.