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All some want for Christmas is a home
Maddie, left, and Aubrie Strickland get to tell Santa what they want for Christmas. Santa is at his hut in downtown Manteca at Yosemite Avenue and Main Street today and Saturday from 1 to 5 p.m. before he heads back to the North Pole to get ready for his rounds. - photo by HIME ROMERO

When it comes to Christmas wishes, Ben Jetton has heard them all.

For the last eight years he’s combed his white beard, donned the red suit and taken to his oversized chair at the corner of Main Street and Yosemite Avenue as Downtown Manteca’s Santa Claus – keeping a tradition that spans nearly five decades alive.

From video game consoles to posable action figures to ponies, Jetton has graciously listened to the requests of young boys and girls and taken them under advisement. He always makes sure to ask if they’ve been good and minded their parents.

It’s something he looks forward to being a part of all year.

“The kids are so much fun, and seeing a smile on their face really makes this what it is for me,” Jetton said. “They look forward to coming down and seeing Santa, and it’s definitely mutual – seeing that youthful joy is something special.”

And in the instances when the younger kids aren’t quite ready to spend solo time on the knee of St. Nick, Jetton has come up with a way to make sure that even they can end up with their own photo with Santa without ending up traumatized at the same time.

In true magic fashion, Jetton has the parents hold the children in front of a candy cane backdrop and look towards the camera while he sneaks up behind without them even knowing – allowing for his guarantee that every family can walk away with a photo with Santa.

The $5 cost helps cover the materials needed to print each photo, but Jetton encourages parents that might not be able to afford the service to bring their own cameras – never turning anybody away from what he sees as a holiday rite-of-passage for children of all ages.

Just dropping by to share one’s holiday wish list is also an encouraged activity.

“A lot of the things that kids ask for today is pretty commercialized – they ask for what they see on television,” he said. “I’ve been trying to bring back that simpler era though when something like a wooden toy would be the perfect gift under the tree. But it’s hard to compete with commercials and advertisements nowadays.”

Not all of what he hears, however, are requests for toys.

Every once in a while, Jetton ends up getting children that make pleas for things that tug at his heartstrings and show him that while some kids will end up with plenty under the tree, some just want to see a tree.

“We’ve had kids come up and say that they would like homes for Christmas, and that’s something that you just don’t expect to hear,” Jetton said. “The other one that I heard – not so much this year but in past years – were a lot of kids asking for their parents to come home from military deployments overseas. We’d try and get their email addresses and send the picture to them.

“Other kids say that they want a Christmas tree because they’ve never had one. Hearing that kind of stuff can be tough, but you just have to try and give them a good experience. Christmas starts with the heart.”