by Reneé Mizar
Communications Coordinator, Museum & Arts Center in the Sequim-Dungeness Valley
Good-natured neighbors assuming the role of jolly old St. Nick, children eagerly awaiting their turn to sit on his knee to recite their wish lists and gathering to sing Christmas carols are just some of the local seasonal traditions that are as treasured today as they were decades ago.
Ross Hamilton said Santa Claus Day already was a standing tradition at Southwood’s when he joined the popular West Washington Street store as assistant manager in 1972. He said one of the favorite aspects of the job was the annual task of dressing up the store in holiday finery, which was accomplished during open hours.
“Santa Claus Day was something that we had for many, many years,” said Hamilton, noting pictures with Santa was the main feature. “This was before the days when the town had a Santa. This was the big event of town.”
Fellow Southwood’s employee Mayme Faulk, who began working there in 1964, also vividly recalls the yearly scene of children excitedly awaiting their turn to meet Santa.
“They would just be lined up to get in there to have their picture taken with Santa,” Faulk said. “And there was always this one woman who would bring her dog in, all dressed up.”
Hamilton said different people took on the Southwood’s Santa role over the years, from the store’s handyman to just good-natured townspeople. Faulk added that the city had a Santa outfit that apparently anyone could borrow so long as they had it cleaned prior to its return.
“In those days, in a tight-knit community, you just knew people and they’d volunteer to do the job. I can’t remember how Santa arrived, probably came out of the stock room,” Hamilton said, noting some years he served as the photographer. “We used a Polaroid camera sometimes so families could take them.”
Suiting up as Santa
St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Sequim also had its own regular who donned the big red suit for a number of years. The late Ferd Schnuriger spent many years portraying Santa for the church, which his daughter Terri Schnuriger Lillquist recalls was a big deal in their family.
“I’m pretty sure the church supplied the suit he’s wearing in the photo,” said Lillquist, referring to a photograph of her father as Santa taken in December 1961. “In the later 1960s, when they could afford it, my folks bought a much nicer Santa outfit from Sears and Roebuck. The beard was fuller and wavy, not stringy.”
Several of Lillquist’s former classmates also shared their hometown Christmas memories from the 1940s-1960s, with many noting their celebrations largely revolved around the home, family and church.
“Christmas was always a special time for the Clayton family, as it was my birthday as well,” said Neil Clayton, who is celebrating his 70th birthday. “My folks and grandparents tried to separate Christmas from my birthday as best they could.”
Other yuletide traditions, Clayton recalled, included participating in Christmas programs at the Methodist Church and singing at the Rebekah Lodge – until his voice changed – since his mother and grandmother were members. He also called to mind Santa hanging out by the Bank of Sequim, now the location of Bank of America Park, while visiting downtown about two or three weeks before Christmas.
Here comes Santa Claus
While Santa was posing for pre-Christmas pictures in town back when, rural residents can attest that he – or, in at least one case, she – also was making frequent house calls throughout the Dungeness Valley.
“On Christmas Eve, Mom would slip away and go outside in the dark with her Santa mask on and give us glimpses of her head bobbing up and down past the windows,” Judene Throop Cook recollected. “We never did figure out it was Mom but was sure it was Santa.”
Tod Jones said he and wife Betsy Schenck Jones, who both grew up a few miles out of town, remember someone masquerading as Santa coming to their homes a day or two before Christmas.
“Must have been more than one to cover so much territory that was rural,” he mused. “My experience was different in that my folks’ religion condemned celebrating Christmas so it was their opportunity to make life miserable for whoever it was that showed up.”
For Helen Bucher, who grew up on her family’s Brown Road farmstead in the 1930s and 1940s, the arrival of her grandparents on Christmas Eve meant that Santa was soon to follow – that is, after the cows had been milked.
She said yuletide memories include the whole family playing Christmas songs and their Christmas tree adorned with candles. As was a Bucher family custom on Christmas Eve, everyone but her mother to go wait in the root cellar while Santa descended upon the home and they would wait for a bell ring to signal the all-clear.
“When we heard the bells ring again, that meant that Santa was through and that we could go back in the house,” she recalled, noting she still has the bells. “My mom stayed in the kitchen, she didn’t want to be in Santa’s way.”