LAHORE: Every Christmas for the past eight years, Peter Johnson has filled dozens of goody bags, dressed up as Santa Claus, and handed out presents all over Youhanabad, the largest Christian neighbourhood in Lahore.
“It’s the smile that counts for me, especially when I see impoverished children of my neighbourhood getting excited and happy to see me. There is nothing like it,” Peter says.
This year, the 57-year-old started distributing gifts at Lahore’s churches at the start of December, carrying his red sack stuffed with goodies, wrapped in plastic covers and colourful ribbons.
He shows off his fancy dress – but is clearly highly fastidious when it comes to his clothing, cap and beard. He has reason to be. The outfit did not come easy: “I bought the white beard from Saudi Arabia, where I used to work, from a shop that sold Christmas items under cover since the government there doesn’t allow them to be openly sold,” Peter says.
He lived in Saudi Arabia for 27 years. He could not celebrate any Christian events in the country. Since returning to Pakistan, he’s made up for lost time.
“As a child, I never saw a Santa Claus in our village or anywhere else. For me Santa means happiness and that’s my motivation,” he says.
The happiness comes without recognition – or at least that is Peter’s intention, for he tried to keep his identity secret from his neighbours. Peter’s two sons, Simon and Noman, are also part of his troupe, though it should be stressed that they do not dress as reindeers. Simon does dress up as Santa himself sometimes, as his father often has more than one commitment during the festive season.
But Peter’s philanthropy is not limited to distributing gifts, or dancing and singing dressed as Santa Claus. A few years ago, he collected enough money to buy an ambulance that he now drives himself, free of cost.
“I heard about a neighbour who died because there was no vehicle to take him to a hospital, and that really saddened me,” he says. Peter points out that this neighbourhood of at least 100,000 people did not have any such emergency service before he bought the ambulance.
“I am available 24 hours a day to serve humanity, be it for Christians or members of other faiths.” His ambulance carried the word ‘koshish’ (struggle) on its front. “This ambulance is the result of a 10-year struggle and that’s why I have called it that,” Peter adds.
This Christmas he will visit Muslim households in his area as well, as he wants to invite them for celebrations. “We need to unite as Pakistanis in this country, and events like Christmas should be used for building this interfaith harmony,” Peter says.
“Whenever I hand out gifts on Christmas, there is only one thing on my mind – to bring people closer to the God we all believe in,” he concludes and says he will continue to be Santa Claus every year till his last breath.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 25th, 2011.