It’s been happening in Swarthmore since 1890. Every Thanksgiving, a phone number is published in The Swarthmorean, and each Friday thereafter, there’s a Santa story in the newspaper. These days, there’s even a promotional website. “We had to modernize,” says an anonymous organizer, who’s a real-life investment adviser.
This Christmas Eve, the visits to area homes will take place for the 128th consecutive year. “It would spoil it if anyone knew who does it,” says a leader of the family-based Santa management team. “You’re God for a night, and in such a difficult world, to see kids have something that they believe in is pure joy—though there are still parents who say we’re feeding lies to the kids.”
Non-cynics make a formal request for Saint Nick to pay a visit to their kids. That night, Santa enters the home, escorted by the parents, generally waking the youngsters to wish them a merry Christmas. Often, he’ll stay to watch a child open a pre-selected present—and then it’s back to sleep, with instructions to not wake until their parents do the next morning.
To get to all the children on his list, Santa works from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. He won’t accept money or gifts, though cookies—or carrots for his reindeer—are OK. “[The carrots] generally go into our salads on Christmas Day,” says one former Santa.
The founders of this unique tradition were a wealthy Philadelphia family who manufactured silver thimbles and moved to Swarthmore. Their descendants are still involved. The tradition gained such popularity that, by the 1940s and ’50s, several Santas were needed to fill requests. Some 100 different Santas have heeded the call since. They once visited 130-140 children; now, the number is 110 or fewer.
Founded by Presbyterians, the effort is now run by Quaker consensus—and Santa visits everyone, regardless of religious preference. A recently retired Santa once employed his best Mandarin when he visited an apartment complex of 30 Chinese children. “I took the secret part really seriously,” he says. “My wife knows, my two brothers have been Santas—one still is—and a sister was a reindeer for 15 years.”
These days, the sleighs come in the form of cars equipped with GPS and Google Maps, departing from an undisclosed send-off location. The reindeer find the house numbers, ring the bell, and sound old-fashioned sleigh bells as Santa approaches. One 90-year-old female resident requests a quick stop just to hear those bells. “We’re so lucky to have these families who let an anonymous group of strangers into their homes,” one leader says. “It’s been going on so long in Swarthmore—it’s innocent and magical.”
The seamstress who handles the Santa suits—plush velvet costumes that cost $1,000 each—has been at the sewing machine since 1959. She inherited the costume design from her mother, and she hopes to pass it on to her daughter. Other helpers plan routes, confirm names and ages of the children, and serve on a makeup team. A few Santas actually grow beards and whiten them with makeup.
Santa often gets peppered with incisive questions like “Why is there no snow?” and “How did you get here?”
“The sleigh is magical” is the coached response to the latter. “We tell [our Santas] that they had better be sharp, because the kids are bright. Bring your A-game, and don’t forget names. Be there in the moment.”
One ’80s Santa is pretty certain that she’s the only black female to ever make the rounds. “I was like the Lone Ranger,” says the woman, who’s now 77. “I had a pretty [deep] voice, and I was much heavier than I am now. The main thing was keeping my gloves on because of my fingernails. I still have the suit hanging in my closet.”
She recalls departing the “North Pole” at 11 p.m. and visiting houses in and around Swarthmore, Wallingford and closer to Chester. At the end of her reign, her oldest grandson was her reindeer. He could never quite grasp that she was Santa.
“When I was little, Santa came to my house from town, and I didn’t stop believing until I was 12 years old,” she remembers. “When I found out [the truth], I still didn’t believe it. I said, ‘Of course he’s real,’ and I continued to believe in him. It made me always want to be Santa Claus.”