Operating Central Whidbey Island Fire and Rescue’s Santamobile is quite an undertaking.
The volunteer elves start by getting familiar with the apparatus and then are taken inside for a briefing.
Rules for conduct and safety are reviewed as well as the route for the evening, and then it’s time for Santa to get in his sleigh. Central Whidbey Fire Commissioner Paul Messner has been participating with the department’s Santamobile for almost 30 years.
“I love it; some of the things that happen, you just love it,” he said.
Messner said he enjoys seeing the children, and oftentimes adults too, get excited as they see Santa rolling down the road. The lead car, with its blue and red lights flashing, blares holiday music to signal his arrival. Both the engine and the lead car blow their air horns and wail their sirens to ensure no one misses the show.
Messner smiles and waves, even to cars that pass by on the highway.
“He’s amazing to watch, his smile, reacting to all the people,” said Sue Hartin. Hartin, the spouse of Fire Chief Ed Hartin, sometimes volunteers as one of Santa’s elves. The elves sit in the fire engine and have the best view of Santa perched on top of the truck.
“When we’re driving along you can see him singing Christmas carols up there,” Hartin said.
Even though the temperature often drops pretty low, Messner said he doesn’t get too cold sitting up there. He’s ridden motorcycles since he was 15 and wears his gear underneath the suit to keep warm.
The Santamobile visits seven different Central Whidbey locations throughout December. One year, Messner said he visited a woman who had cancer and gave her a candy cane. He told her that it was just a loan and expected it back the next year.
Sure enough, he said that next year she was there, looking healthy and waiting for him with a candy cane in her hand.
There are a lot of memories that stand out to Messner from his years as Santa, but he said it makes it worth it just to see one kid get excited.
The faces of all ages light up as the engine, bright with Christmas lights, comes their way. The fire district started the tradition with the previous chief Joe Biller because he had done something similar in Bonney Lake.
Throughout the years the reaction from the community has been overwhelmingly positive, Messner said.
“It’s had a tremendous impact on the community,” he said. “Everybody says how much they love it, so we keep doing it.”
The district recently implemented a Santa tracker, so he can be tracked in real time on the department’s website. This year, the Santa crew ran a food drive with the operation as well. Some people waited to greet Santa with a bag of food in their hands, and others rushed back inside to get something to donate.
Whether they had food or not, were young or old, they all had smiles on their faces.
“It seems to bring a lot of joy to people,” said Sue Hartin.
“And that’s fun to see.”