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Video: Learn sign language with Santa Claus

Brian Dickson has brought festive cheer for 24 years. In that time he has pioneered an autistic-friendly silent grotto and spent nine months learning to communicate with deaf children. His passion is to make the season inclusive.

Mark Bain

By Mark Bain

A north Down Santa is determined to make the Christmas experience special for every child who comes to visit - so much so that parents have been known to leave with tears of joy in their eyes.

Not only does Santa Brian Dickson (47) from Carrowdore meet and greet as Father Christmas at Bloomfield Shopping Centre in Bangor, he goes out of his way to make sure that Christmas is every bit as special for children with disabilities and learning difficulties.

Brian, with his wife Jacqueline who joins him as Mrs Claus, spent nine months learning sign language to be able to ask children with hearing problems what they want for Christmas.

"Last year two young girls came in and I saw them using sign language to communicate with each other," he said.

"I wasn't able to talk with them like I could with all of the other children and I felt awful. They weren't getting the same experience and I didn't think that was fair."

Brian has now been on a Secret Santa mission to make his weekend grotto at the popular shopping complex a Winter Wonderland for all.

"Christmas should be an enchanting time for all children and I wanted to make sure everyone goes away with a smile on their face. They should all be able to enjoy it," he said. "And by all, I mean all. No-one should be left out at Christmas."

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Carrowdore Santa Brian Dickson (47) with his wife Jacqueline
Carrowdore Santa Brian Dickson (47) with his wife Jacqueline

The experience helped Brian quickly make the decision to start learning sign language, his own special gift to children who might not otherwise be able to enjoy the experience.

"It's actually not that easy to learn, or to find somewhere to learn it," he said.

"But I was put in touch with Thriving Life Church in Newtownards where they run a free class.

"It took nine months, but if the two little girls come back, I'm ready to talk to them, and anyone else who comes in to see Santa who might have hearing difficulties."

Santa's little helpers at Thriving Life Church were Hazel Craigan, who is deaf herself, and Sandra Johnstone.

"My wife came along with me for the sessions and we both learnt British Sign Language which is basic finger spelling and signs," he added.

"Hazel and Sandra were so helpful and I can now do the basics. I also taught myself some Christmas signs, just enough to help me hold a conversation with a child.

"The thought of seeing the look on their faces when Santa speaks to them in their own language spurred me on."

Brian likes nothing more than giving children of all ages the best Christmas experience, and also decided to discard the fake beard.

Devoted: Brian does not use a false beard
Devoted: Brian does not use a false beard

"If anyone comes in and tries to lip read, they can't see my lips," he said. "The fake beard also muffled words for the hard of hearing. I thought a real beard was the right thing to do.

"I tried it last year by starting to grow it in September but it wasn't thick enough. This year the beard growing started in May.

"My wife actually hates it," he joked.

"But she's putting up with it until Christmas Eve.

"That's when it's coming off. She'll have the real smooth me for a few months before I start growing it back for next year!"

Brian first pulled on the famous red suit for his daughter's playgroup 24 years ago and went on to rope his children in as elves, making it a real family affair.

Carrowdore Santa Brian Dickson
Carrowdore Santa Brian Dickson

"Once I pulled the red suit on that first time, I was hooked. I was Santa and I loved the feeling of bringing such joy," he said.

"I have three daughters and they're all in their 20s now.

"We loved Christmas as a family and they embraced the role as Santa's elves, but they're a bit too big now.

"I have two grandchildren now and they might join in when they're old enough in a couple of years' time."

Brian's grand-daughter was diagnosed with autism five years ago and another string to his Santa's bow is the Silent Santa sessions at Bloomfield Shopping Centre which he runs at weekends ahead of Christmas.

"I got involved with the National Autistic Society in Newtownards, and that made me think about the kind of experience children with autism were having when they went to see Santa," he said.

"I know from experience that you need to give them a little more time, even just a few seconds, to build more of a connection with them.

"The noise, the colours, the bright lights and the crowds can all be too daunting for children with autism. That's why we started the Silent Santa. "I don't want parents to think they can't bring their kids to see Santa for any reason. "We make it a safe, fun and friendly place for them to visit."

His autism-friendly Santa sittings were along the first of their kind in the UK when he started them seven years ago and the commitment will go even further next year.

"Me and my wife plan to complete a course in Makaton so that we can cater to even more children and adults with special needs - it's all about them at the end of the day and if we can make them happy for just 10 minutes during our wee chat then we go home happy," he added.

"I want to be able to treat all the children who come to see Santa exactly the same.

"It's not a job for me, it's the best feeling in the world that I can bring this much happiness to children."

Indeed, Brian is so committed to his Santa role that he saved his annual holidays up from his normal job with Bombardier.

"I always make sure I have enough days of holiday in December to do this," he said.

"I need a week or two clear at this time of the year."

Brian clearly puts a big effort in to make Christmas for everyone else, and said it is a fine substitute for watching his own children grow up and leave the magic of Christmas in his own home a happy memory.

"Christmas should be the most wonderful time of the year," he added.

"There's enough rubbish going on in the world around us these days so why can't we just enjoy a little bit of festive joy?

"It's not just about the presents, the parties and the food. It's about spreading a bit of happiness, putting a wonderful smile on a child's face. That's what makes me do this year after year.

"My own kids have grown up now and as a family at home the festive season had lost a little of its sparkle.

"By doing this I'm getting that sparkle back.

"If you can bring a little bit of that Christmas spirit to just one child, and maybe a child who hasn't seen it before, then it's worth the effort. There's nothing better than seeing that magic in their eyes. You know you've enchanted them, made their Christmas a little bit special.

"I don't care if the line to see Santa is out the door or if it's half an hour past closing time, I will always give each child the time and patience that they expect from Santa no matter how long it takes me."

Brian's Santa is in high demand around north Down and it will be a busy couple of weeks before he can pull off his boots and hang up the red coat.

"I think my wife, Mrs Claus, is probably most looking forward to me finally shaving," he said. "We'll be Brian and Jacqueline after Christmas Eve again.

"But once you pull on that suit you have to actually be Santa, it's no good just looking like him."

At Bloomfield Shopping Centre, they have been delighted with the effect their extra special Santa is having on families.

A spokesperson for the centre said: "The kids come in to see him and we all watch them go nuts.

"He's such a wonderful Santa and does whatever it takes to make each visit special.

"He's been rolling about on the floor making the children laugh and he takes such care to spend time with everyone. No child can say their visit wasn't magical.

"We've seen parents leave with tears in their eyes."

You can visit Brian's special Santa in his cottage outside Tesco at Bloomfield every Saturday and Sunday until December 22 with an extra special final day on Monday, December 23.

Silent Santa will be available for visits from 11am-noon on Sunday, December 8 and 15.

All gifts and photos free though donations can be collected for the Helping Hand charity at the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children.

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