Santa Claus is coming to town

Santa at the tree lighting in 2016. (Heather Spaulding/staff photo)

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a safe night.

Being safe during Christmas can still be fun, and the joy Santa brings can still spread on San Juan Island. But what does it take to be Santa?

“All it takes is someone who can’t wait to see the looks of joy on children’s faces. It’s all about the fun and joy of seeing kids’ smiles on their faces when they see Santa Claus,” Steve McMurtrie said. “That’s what being Santa is all about.”

For 25 years, McMurtrie has delighted children, brought smiles and giggles to hundreds of children, and warmth in the hearts of many adults on San Juan Island, as Santa, at Christmas time. When the season is over, McMurtrie can be seen around the island in a hat that states: “Santa traveling Incognito.”

Islanders may wonder what it will be like for Santa amid the COVID pandemic. “Everybody I see asks if there is going to be Santa this year,” McMurtrie said. “I don’t know what the future will bring; what next year will be like. Kids need to be safe from COVID. … It’s so sad that these things are happening that make it hard for children to see Santa.”

Still, Mcurtrie said he thinks it’s important for Santa to come to visit the community.

“It makes children feel so good,” McMurtrie said. “And even parents and grandparents feel happy too.”

“Santa’s helpers” are hard at work making plans for Santa to visit San Juan Island this year. On Dec. 19, at 10:00 am, San Juan Island Fire and Rescue is planning to bring Santa through Friday Harbor. The plan is for the firefighters to drive Santa on a fire engine through town then out to Roche Harbor, explained SJIFR Administrator Carolyn Hudson.

McMurtrie said he is very happy these plans are in the works.

“I don’t know what I would do if Santa had to stop coming because of COVID,” McMurtrie said. “Now I know what it’s like when children see Santa and smile. That makes me want to see what we can do this year.”

It all started for McMurtrie many years ago.

“I was over in Europe during the war and saw how the Europeans had St. Nicholas come out to bring gifts to all the children. The children would all run to see St. Nicholas,” McMurtrie said. “This was before TV. I really like that! Everyone seemed so happy.”

Years later, on San Juan Island, the story continued. McMurtrie had a family business detailing boats at the dock in Roche Harbor.

“In those days, I had had a beard since 1965,” McMurtrie says, “My daughters wouldn’t even recognize me without my beard!”

One day, McMurtrie’s beard drew the attention of Jim Desormeaux, who asked if he wanted to be Santa that year. The suit Desermo gave him lasted until two years ago when he received a new one, McMurtrie explained.

For decades, Santa has had a seat next to the fireplace in the Roche Harbor Hotel lobby, and elves to assist, McMurtrie explained.

“So many people started coming that they started having it in the Pavilion over there, that holds a lot of people in it,” McMurtrie said.

Santa usually appeared at different times and places on San Juan Island in the weeks before Christmas. Roche Harbor typically hosted Santa on the second Saturday in December, according to McMurtrie. He’s also been known to visit King’s Market, the Memorial Park lighting and various boat parades.

McMurtrie said he has had a lot of reasons to keep doing this over the years. He recalled one year when he handed out boxes with the Sons of the American Legion.

“I still remember one little girl sitting on a couch, and when I came in she jumped up and ran right to me, smiling and giggling. She was so excited, she fell down and then got right back up, laughing giggling all the way to see me,” McMurtrie said. “That’s what being Santa is all about; making kids smile and seeing their happy faces.”

McMurtrie said he remembers many touching moments, like that one, from his time as Santa. He explained that one time, a mother brought her 2-year-old son in to see Santa. The son was unsure of Santa.

“I got off my chair and went and sat down next to him. The mother was so surprised, but I said, ‘If he won’t come to me, I will come to him,’” McMurtrie said.

Most of the children who come see McMurtrie are between the ages of 1 and 10, he explained. The oldest person he remembers visiting him was in her 90s.

“That was something I’ll never forget!” McMurtrie said.

Families have come to visit McMurtrie as Santa for generations, he explained.

“It’s fantastic! One lady came in and said, ‘I have 13 pictures of you on my dresser,’ These were all with her family and me,” McMurtrie said. “I still see some people who recognize me from years ago.”

BJ Brandli, who is in charge of the Leos, a program through the Lions Club for youth activities, has worked with McMurtrie for several years.

“McMurtrie has been dependable, just like Santa,” said Brandli. “Where there’s a need, there’s Steve McMurtrie!”