Rory Williams, Chairman of the Kilkenny People of the Year Award, Siobhan Donohoe, MC with winner John Holohan and Peter Chap Cleere, Chairman of Kilkenny County Council. (Photo by Harry Reid)
John Holohan from Urlingford has raised more than €250,000 for Temple Street Children’s Hospital over the past twelve years as Secret Santa. He has brought magic and joy to a countless number of children. Every winter, John shuts down his workshop in November and becomes Santa Claus during the month of December with his true to life reindeers and sleigh. To experience the excitement and joy on the faces of the children when Santa comes to town is a tonic in itself.
John has been described as the purest example of “the true spirit of giving”, he empowers others to help him as he spreads laughter, cheer and hope to many people throughout the month of December.
He also won the Kilkenny People ‘Person of the Year’ award in November. In addition to successfully being this year’s category winner for his incredibly volunteerism both locally and nationally. Vicky Phelan was there on the night to present this award to him, on behalf of Kilkenny People of the Year Committee
John turns seventy next April, with no intention of retiring. He wants to help Temple Street Children’s Hospital as long as he can. He is also a proud Irish 66er having completed Route 66 across America with other bikers to raise funds for the hospital. He has also travelled many miracle miles for Temple Street over the years.
Temple Street is the first port of call for tens of thousands of children every year suffering from every kind of illness and injury imaginable. The children and staff at Temple Street are beyond proud to have this man as their friend and an integral part of their ‘circle of care’.
Here is a glimpse into John’s world…
John, you've had a busy season, travelling all around the country as Secret Santa, describe a typical day in the run up to Christmas.
Morning: Rise at 7.30am and I am lucky if I get the time to grab a bowl of porridge. Suit is on and out the door before 8am.
Lunch: Normally by this time of day we have visited four schools or crèches. Weather permitting, whatever town we are in, we hit the streets with the collection buckets for a few hours.
Dinner: I attend lots of office parties for fundraising. So needless to say there are late finishes.
How did you become Santa?
It started with the local hurling club, they were looking to do a fundraiser. Then someone suggested a Santa grotto and I was asked to do Santa. It started for the local GAA Club, then people started asking me to do a parties and wanted to pay me but I wouldn’t charge. So they paid me with a box of biscuits and a bottle of whiskey.
Then one Christmas a letter came in at home looking for money for Crumlin and I turned to my wife and said that’s what we will do – we’ll fundraise for the children’s hospital.
What do you and your volunteers do?
I start around September, I try to get three or four schools and crèches close to one another and we arrange visits to them. We go in with the sleigh and park up. The school normally fundraise with a non-uniform day. We don’t charge, every cent we get goes into Temple Street. Most schools have their fundraising done before we get there and give us a cheque or throw it into a Temple Street bucket. Some of the schools have toys ready for me to hand out to the kids.
We have 50 volunteers and people from all over the country. People are great to help.
You are kind of like a real life Santa. You work in your workshop all year and close up for December to see all the boys and girls.
The day job is tractor repairs. I keep saying I am semi-retired but I think I am going harder now than I ever did!
You are so in demand, Ireland AM were looking for you this week, is that true?
Yes, but I had to turn that down, I have to be in Bagenalstown that morning. I can’t let the kids down.
Is the beard real?
It is, along with my white hair! I grow it all year round and then on Christmas Eve, I pay a visit to Anna Danielle for my annual haircut and beard trim. I won’t see her again until the following year.
You won Kilkenny People ‘Person of the Year’ Award last month. You really didn’t expect it.
No, not at all. I love doing what I am doing, I wouldn’t do it otherwise. The first year we started fundraising, I raised €10,000 and it started climbing by €10,000 every year. Two years ago it went up to just over €50,000 and I said I would be happy if it reached €60,000 last year and it actually went over €70,000.
So even during the recession, people kept on giving?
Whatever it is about Temple Street, people give. When you are on the street, people would literally swing you around to give you money. I saw a woman in Kilkenny the other day, she was only after drawing her pension and she came over and put €50 into the bucket. Everyone has a story, that is directly or indirectly related to Temple Street.
The kids must love seeing you every year in Temple Street?
I suppose they do! I go up the first Thursday in December every year to turn the lights on, go around the wards and give toys to all the kids. I normally have a celebrity going around with me too!
Not alone are you Santa Claus but you are also a bit of a biker. So I can see where the beard started.
I go every second year on Route 66 to raise money for Temple Street, about of 100 of us do it. We travel 2,500 miles on the route. This is just part of lots of different fundraisers throughout the year for Temple Street. I also do the half marathon in Inis Mor, I started that two years ago. I don’t run it, I’m lucky to be able to work it.
Some of your friends describe you as having the ‘true spirit of giving’.
I just love kids and its sad to think what some of them are going through. I really miss it when Christmas is over, but the hands have to get dirty again and I have to get back into the workshop.
What’s been the most memorable thing a child has done or said to you?
There was one little girl who we met on Route 66, as we pulled up to a petrol station. I could see her staring at me, so I walked over to her and her parents. You could see her eyes were shining with amazement. We have a photo with her. I’II never forget the joy in her eyes, looking at Santa on his motor bike.
Do people give you Santa letters?
They do and I open them to see if there’s any money in them for Temple Street! I bring them on holidays for a read, its wonderful what kids write in them.
You have seven children of your own. Christmas must have been magical in your house for your kids?
Don’t talk to me! I never forget trying to get the presents organised on Christmas Eve. Every time we’d make a move one of them would wake up, until eventually we’d fall asleep ourselves!
Your wife has sadly passed away. It must be tough for you this time of year.
Yes, my wife Sinead lost her battle on the shortest day of the year, December 21st. First time she was sick in 2012 , I was just about to go on Route 66. I wasn’t going to go but my daughter made me. This keeps her spirit alive.
Does Santa get Christmas Day off?
Absolutely, my family are all around with lots of grandchildren and my eldest son does the cooking.
Is there anything about Secret Santa or John Holohan that we don’t know about?
There’s a lot, but it won’t go in the paper!
I was nearly ‘found out’ once in one of the schools, and not for Santa but being from Kilkenny! I was in a Tipperary school and Tipp was after beating Kilkenny in the Al-Ireland. One of the kids asked me who ‘Santa was shouting for on the day of the All-Ireland’ and I couldn’t lie! Thank God I didn’t have to as the teacher had a quick answer and told the children that ‘when Santa opens his mouth in Croke Park, nothing comes out!’
Is there anything on your bucket list?
I did it this year, I went to Donegal on a bike run for a girl who passed away with leukaemia and I want to do it again next year.
You are in the heart of it in Temple Street. If you could grant a Christmas wish for the hospital what would it be?
It’s an old hospital, and they are building a state of the art job. Whenever that will happen, we will see it, but I would like to see it happening sooner than later. I think I will have to stay doing Santa for another few years. As long as Temple Street is there, I’II keep helping them.
So if you ever see John and his bucket, please help and denote to Temple Street Hospital. You can also contact him on Facebook on Santa ForCharity (that’s not a typo). Happy Christmas to you all and here’s to more Day in the Lives in 2020. Ho, Ho, Ho!