The day I met Bryon Harris, I heard him before I saw him.
By Elissa Herbst
I was waiting to meet him in a conference room. When I heard jingle bells, I knew it had to be him. I was right. For who else could it be, but the person I was to interview about playing a Meijer Santa?
Santa at Meijer may not be something you’ve heard a lot about, and you’d be right. It was a beloved but short-lived feature at stores during the holiday season. And to tell the story through Bryon’s eyes, we have to go back 28 years.
1990 was a busy year for Bryon. In September, he changed jobs from the Meijer switchboard to the Benefits department. On October 27, he married his wife Deeon. Four days later, he celebrated his birthday (yes, on Halloween. More on that in a minute). In November, he received an email from a team leader at the Plainfield, Mich., Meijer, saying he was looking for someone to play Santa in the store.
“This is the opportunity of a lifetime,” Bryon said. “You’ll never be able to do this again. I couldn’t say no.”
A Christmas Person
To understand Bryon’s love of Christmas, all you have to do is visit his desk. Nearly every inch is covered in ornaments, bobbleheads, figurines, and lights.
What you’ll also see is a line of orange pencil holders, an orange mousepad, orange water bottle, and his orange jacket draped over the chair. Remember Bryon’s birthdate? October 31.
“Obviously I’m a Halloween person, but I’m a big Christmas fan,” he said.
Bryon decorates his desk for both holidays. His favorite decorations are vintage items he’s saved from over the years or finds in thrift stores. For Christmas, he has wooden ornaments, delicate ceramic figurines, a tiny gingerbread house music box, even napkin holders he repurposed as décor. Bryon admits sometimes his team leader tells him it’s too much. He apologizes, then sneaks a few more items.
It’s the same situation at home. Also a lover of Christmas, Deeon gets into the spirit of the season. Christmas decorations take over the living room, bedroom, and spare room. Some of Bryon’s favorites are a collector set with mice, drummers, bears, and rabbits and a train whose cars spell out NOEL. He also has a nativity scene made up of, of all things, rubber ducks. Deeon’s favorite? Lining the top of the bookshelves with snowmen.
“She has a billion snowmen up there,” he jokes.
Until 2008, the Plainfield store was Store 12 (now 312). It had an upstairs mezzanine that housed a barber shop, beauty salon, and café. In fact, Bryon started his career at Meijer 32 years ago as a dishwasher in that very café. But in 1990, he found himself in a back room with no door, changing into what would be his uniform that season – a red outfit trimmed in white, a red and white hat, black boots, and a fluffy white beard. He did his own makeup – a little bit of blush for those rosy cheeks and white makeup on his eyebrows and sideburns to match the beard.
Bryon didn’t do anything to prepare for his role. He said the only preparation he needed was from watching Miracle on 34th Street.
Bryon relished his role. He and his wife were never blessed with children, but when you meet him, you immediately sense his friendly nature and understand he must be a natural with kids. So when he encountered a memorable child, a special family, or a funny moment, he motioned for his “elf” helpers to take an extra photo.
Bryon says his favorite memories include a woman who wanted a picture of Santa with her three-day-old baby. The mother explained the baby’s father was away at Desert Storm and she wanted this picture to show him their baby had been born.
“I’d never held a baby that young,” Bryon said. “That one, out of everybody, touched me the most back then. I’ve wondered where that baby is now and what he’s doing in life.”
Another favorite memory is of a man from Russia who had just become a United States citizen. One of the ways he celebrated his new citizenship was with his first photo with Santa Claus.
Of course, many children brought Santa letters and wish lists with what they wanted for Christmas. Bryon said the lists blew him away. He was surprised how specific many kids were. Some cut out pictures from ads so Santa would know exactly what they wanted. Some wrote the price of the items or the store where Santa could buy them. Some kids didn’t have lists, but colored pictures for Santa. Then there were the kids who didn’t even ask for gifts.
“What I really enjoyed were the children who didn’t ask for any presents. They had life things. One’s mother was sick. He said, ‘could you heal my mother?’ One had recently lost a grandparent and asked for the grandparent to come back.”
It was touching moments like those that burned into Bryon’s brain. Those were the inspiration that moved him to save those photos and letters for almost three decades.
“I kept looking at it all and I said to my wife, ‘I can’t get rid of this.’ So I stored it in a tote and hauled it out about once a year if someone wanted to see it or I wanted to reminisce.”
Preserving His Story
In 2017, Bryon attended a holiday event at the Meijer Heritage Center – a museum of Meijer history inside the Fred Meijer corporate building in Grand Rapids, Mich. He later approached the curator, Lisa VanArragon, and told her about his memorabilia from playing Santa.
Lisa was immediately fascinated. She offered to scan his items and keep the digital versions at the Heritage Center so Bryon could take the originals home, but he had a different idea. Bryon knew some of the items were deteriorating and the Heritage Center could preserve them properly, so he turned over every item and kept the digital versions for himself.
That wasn’t the end. Later, Lisa asked Bryon if he was willing to participate in an event to share his story about playing Santa. Bryon was surprised she remembered and wanted to do anything in addition to displaying the items. That’s the thing about Bryon – he doesn’t realize how extraordinary his story is.
Lisa said, “Hearing Bryon’s story, seeing his pictures, reading the Santa letters he saved all these years is not only moving, but also a valuable record of some of the practices in Retail Operations that would be all but forgotten if not for these great documents of his experiences.”
Bryon shared that story on Dec. 13, 2018, in a Meijer Heritage Center event, “Yes, Thrifty, there is a Sinterklaas: Tales from a Meijer Santa.”
Preparing for his talk, Bryon worked hard to try to remember details of his Santa stint nearly three decades ago. He turned to those saved items to help jog his memory.
“I haven’t had to think about some of the specifics, but when I opened up some of the stuff, that helped the flood of memories come back,” he said.
Bryon played Santa at the Plainfield store for two years – 1990 and 1991.
“It was a great joy to do. I don’t think I’ve had more fun doing anything than doing that,” he said.
Click below to download all content attached to this article. File sizes vary.