KEPONG: For many adults weary from hard work, Christmas is but a convenient excuse to skip a gruelling day at the office.
However, it’s different for children. They anxiously await this special year-end festival full of the promise of presents, new clothes, a twinkling tree and sweet treats of every shape and form.
This unbridled happiness is a joy to watch, especially when Santa Claus, with his hearty “ho ho ho”, bright red costume and jolly white beard shows up just in time for the holidays bearing gifts for the little ones.
And at Graceland Montessori Playhouse, a kindergarten in the quiet suburb of Jalan Bukit Desa in Kepong, one unlikely person steps into the shoes of this iconic holiday figure.
This Santa Claus is extra special mostly because ‘he’ is actually a ‘she’!
It takes quite some time for Wilhelmina Rani, 63, to change out of her festive costume; but once she does, a genuinely sweet grandmother emerges, free of the big white beard and big black shoes that make up her disguise.
As it turns out, when she’s not playing Santa Claus, Wilhelmina is a kindergarten teacher at Graceland. “I enjoy my work,” she told FMT, adding that she has worked there for about 19 years now.
According to her, her love for children was something she discovered with a jolt only after her own kids had grown up and become more independent.
“When they were in secondary school, I had nothing to do at home. There was a vacancy here at Graceland, so I joined and afterwards, I realised I had a passion for children.”
This was mostly noticeable during term breaks, when Wilhelmina would miss the squeals of laughter and excited chatter of children. “I enjoy having children around me!”
Come December, Graceland tones down on the lessons and instead prepares its students for concerts, dances, plays and fashion shows.
What the children look forward to, however, is the appearance of the jolly “man” in red, who shows up every single year thanks to Wilhelmina.
“Every Christmas, I’ve been Santa Claus! It’s Santa Claus, not Santarina! According to the kids, they don’t know who’s behind the costume!”
She has apparently been doing this since 2008 and she does not intend on stopping the annual tradition any time soon.
But why was she chosen for the role? “I was fat,” she responded rather curtly, before adding that age has since led to substantial weight loss.
Regardless of the reason, she has been more than happy to don the Santa Claus costume every year come December. “I was a bit nervous but after that, I got into the costume and just started performing.
“The children came to me and it was beautiful! I enjoyed it and I said, ‘I want to be Santa Claus every year!’ It was so much fun!”
Of course, children are a curious lot, and Wilhelmina recounted how the occasional miscreant would try to flip her beard to see who’s behind it. “Very naughty and cheeky children!”
For the most part though, the children are so caught up with the very sight of a life-size Santa before them that they rarely stop to consider the person inside the costume.
“They don’t know it’s me behind the beard and the costume!” she said. While some children do suspect who Santa Claus really is, others are true believers who shoot down those suspicions.
“’I think this is Aunt Rani,’ some would say. And then, someone would say, ‘No! A woman can’t be Santa Claus!’”
To keep up the illusion, Wilhelmina makes it a point to never speak while in character, only communicating through hand gestures and whispering to her assistants.
She said the greatest joy of playing Santa Claus every year was having the kids surround her and seeing the joy on their faces when she handed them little gifts.
And what would Santa Claus wish for this year? “May the good Lord keep me in the best of health to have me continue in this Santa Claus post for the following years.”
And sending her wishes to FMT readers, Wilhelmina said: “A very blessed, healthy and safe New Year! God be with you always and Merry Christmas!”.