SOMERS POINT — In a firehouse one Wednesday in December, John Brenner gets ready to transform into one of Santa’s helpers.
“They’re amazed, like ‘there’s Santa Claus,’” Brenner says. “It’s like magic for the kids.”
Brenner takes great pride in his suit. It cost $600, the bill footed by a friend.
For 16 years, Brenner, 58, has donned it for adult parties, private events and friends’ homes — never accepting pay. He’s made as many as 13 visits on one Christmas Eve. And for a few years, he would arrive accompanied by an elf — his son, Casey.
Brenner, a retired Atlantic City firefighter and member of a Philadelphia Eagles’ on-field security squad, places what looks like a giant’s ring on the table.
Brenner, now the proprietor of J.B.’s Firehouse Meatballs, retired as an Atlantic City firefighter in 2010 and as a volunteer in Northfield’s company two years after that.
“I got too old for running into burning buildings,” he says.
Brenner left the ring — one that staff could buy after February’s Super Bowl — on the table as he finished preparing for an appearance down the street at Shore Medical Center. He pulls on fireman boots and cinches his belt. All the while, in the station’s rec room with Yuengling on tap and a faded felt pool table, he’s telling stories — and has people in stitches.
When he was growing up, his neighbor would have Santa visit the house on Christmas Eve for area kids. They had no chimney, Brenner said, so Santa would climb the roof from a ladder in the backyard and then slip back down, reappearing in the house to the kids’ amazement.
However, one year, he didn’t make it to the living room; he fell from the ladder and broke his arm.
Conversation in the firehouse turned to infamous Santa mishaps. Brenner says he suggested to Eagles higher-ups once that he make an appearance as Santa for a game. No way, they said; not after a crowd infamously rained snowballs on a ratty, replacement Santa. He understood. How about only if it doesn’t snow? he countered. Still no.
Brenner has surrounded himself with friends and work he loves since his retirement. He’s needed to keep his mind occupied; he’s needed some purpose.
In the late summer of 2011, an SUV overturned and rolled on the Garden State Parkway, killing four, including the driver, and injuring four others.
All were Mainland Regional High School football players, part of a caravan headed to eat after their last practice of the summer, a team tradition.
And Brenner’s son, Casey, was behind the wheel.
Casey’s younger brother Ryan, also on the team, chose to ride in another car.
“That first Christmas, and Thanksgiving, and all the holidays and the birthdays, they’re brutal,” he said. “Seven years later, they’re still really hard. Lost a piece of my heart that day.”
This time of the year was a favorite of Casey’s, he says. His brothers weren’t interested in playing the elf.
“He loved Christmas,” said Brenner, who planted an evergreen tree behind his son’s memorial bench — where Merritt Drive crosses the Linwood Bike Path — and decorates it every year.
The activity he once shared with his youngest son — bringing Christmas to kids — to this day, remains a bittersweet ritual.
“I get a little emotional when I put the suit on,” Brenner said. “It’s a hard time of the year.”
Fully-suited now, Brenner takes a call. He talks logistics, says they’ll be on their way in just a moment. And then, Brenner lets out a full-bellied Santa laugh. “You guys ready?” he asks the kids. “We’ll be down there, you guys behave yourself now, alright?”
In the two-minute engine ride from the station to the Bay Avenue lawn in front of the hospital, Brenner, as blue and as funny as he is, transforms. Kids with their parents cheer the truck’s arrival, and he exits the vehicle a new man.
Trees out front, donated by the hospital, are strung with lights by the community. Holding a microphone, Brenner counts down their lighting up.
David Hughes, founder of Somers Point Community First, and CFO and chief development officer at Shore Medical Center, personally invited Brenner.
“We’re very pleased with the turnout. Considering this is our first time, and to have this big of a crowd,” Hughes said, as Jingle Bells was played live behind him. “It makes it really exciting when Santa comes with the fire department and it makes it really a nice experience for the kids.”
It’s special for Brenner, too. He gets to re-create the Christmas wonder he remembers from his childhood, the one he brought to his own children.
Kids crowded around for a chance to tell Santa what they wanted, their parents snapping photos and drinking hot chocolate. He handed out miniature candy canes. And he showed the Santa-sized ring to two wide-eyed brothers, the bay and its winterized boats sleeping quietly across the street.
And there was no John Brenner then, only Santa.