Each December in Fort Smith, Santa Claus comes to town… again, and again, and again.
Santa’s helpers – local volunteers believed not to be elves – ensure his sleigh drives all across town, nightly, for a month, waving to children behind frosted window panes.
But unless someone steps up to coordinate the beloved event, which has run annually since 1986, Santa’s Fort Smith sojourn might “go to the wayside” – according to current sleigh mechanic and Santa scheduler Michel Labine, who is looking to retire.
According to Labine, Duncan MacPherson began the tradition by towing a piece of plywood behind his car.
“He sat on a sled on the plywood and got dragged around town by his wife,” recalled Labine. Now, Santa’s sled is fixed to a 30-foot trailer and pulled by a blow-up muffaloose (with some help from a truck).
When MacPherson began wintering in Arizona, he built Santa another sled there. In 2015, the CBC reported he had died “doing what he loved most – working on his sleigh” in the south.
A big responsibility
Labine took over from MacPherson nine years ago, but has decided he is also ready to pass on the responsibility.
“If nobody steps up I guess I’ll do it again this year, but it would be nice to bring on a mentor or two to help and get it going for the future,” he said.
“It’s a legacy for the Town of Fort Smith and it needs to keep happening.”
The coordinator, he explained, is responsible for scheduling Santas and reserve Santas, making sure there is gas in the generator so the the 30,000 lights and Christmas carols stay on, washing Santa’s beard each day, and helping the driver, Santa, and Mrs Claus get suited up each evening.
“The purpose of the float is to enhance the experience of Christmas … the smiles and reactions you get from people when you’re driving around make it worthwhile, and it’s quite the experience,” Labine said.
He says if anyone is interested in carrying on the tradition, they can send him a message through Facebook.
A community tradition
On the first Sunday in December, the community gathers to watch the lighting of the town’s Christmas tree, drink hot chocolate at the museum, and cheer Santa on during his first lap around town at 3 kph.
Every night afterwards, Santa alternates visiting opposite sides of town, slowly making his way down every street with Christmas carols announcing his impending arrival from blocks away.
The two-hour trip can be chilly for Santa and Mrs Claus, but Labine provides electric blankets, and warmers for the volunteers to put in their boots and mitts.
“It’s a lot of fun,” he said of the float. “It brings a smile to your face and warms your heart.
“And when you see people that are two years old and people that are 92 years old standing in the window, waving at Santa and enjoying it as it goes by, it gives you goosebumps.”