Every year around Christmas, for the past 65 years, you could find restaurateur John Pernicano dressed in full Santa Claus-gear — a costume made for him by one of the waitresses when he first began his side gig at Pernicano's Family Restaurant, 711 Turquoise St., just south of La Jolla 's Bird Rock area in Northern Pacific Beach , San Diego.
And every year for the past 65 years, Pernicano's would be packed during the holidays with families bringing their kids to sit on Santa John's lap, tell him what they want for Christmas, sing along to his harmonica-playing and receive a present.
2018 marked Santa John's last year in the role, making it a bittersweet experience for the generations of families who've made it a point to never miss a Christmas with him. According to John, it was his last year as Santa Claus because his kids want to retire from the restaurant business and they want him to settle down, too.
Although he most likely won't return as Santa Claus in 2019, he maintains that he's not going to retire totally — he plans on finding "the right person" to lease the restaurant to, but has no intention of selling it.
"No one's gonna tell me what to do, not at 91 years old," John says with a laugh.
On Thursday evening, Dec. 20, Pernicano's was packed full of families, many of them three-generations strong, all there to get one final — and deeply nostalgic — holiday experience with Santa John.
"Everybody's just part of the family," Santa John told PB Monthly. "Generation after generation. And nothing changes."
Sitting in the center of the restaurant on the sea-worthy boat he made with friends more than 50 years ago, Santa John was surrounded by excited children (and many excited adults as well), eager to interact with The Man in the Red Flannel Suit.
"These are the people I've been serving for (65) years," he said. "The children grow on me. They're part of me."
John's heart for children — and the PB community over the years — has made him a beloved icon who will forever be in the hearts of those touched by his fun-loving, generous spirit.