California's 'Accidental Santa' Takes Kids' Calls

John Dickson usually gives advice to tourists about where to go on the Central Coast. Come Christmas time, he's known as the "Accidental Santa."

Dickson, 44, has earned the name after scores of kids called him thinking they had reached Santa Claus. Instead, bad dialing led them to Dickson at 1-800-SANTABARBARA, a visitor information hotline, rather than their intended recipient at 1-800-SANTACLAUS. The phone numbers are only one digit apart.

This year, Dickson prepared for the flood of calls and enlisted the help of 100 volunteers. Over the past week, thousands of children have called — much to the delight of Dickson and his crew.

"Doing this is more important than my job," Dickson said. "Santa Claus is really a big deal — a gigantic deal — for these children."

The phone line is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and occasionally adults call before putting their children on with Santa and his helpers. Volunteers say they received all sorts of requests — from dolls to video games. But some requests are even too great for Santa to fulfill.

"What one little boy wanted was for his parents to get back together," said Neftali Rubio, a student at Santa Barbara City College. "I told him that would be difficult for Santa to do — but we'd see."

Dickson has been working 12-hour Santa shifts and said anyone who enjoys talking to children could field calls.

"It's all second nature," he said. "You don't really have to have a big list."