When my kids were little, we would gather at the home of their great grandparents in Benzie County every Christmas Eve for a traditional Christmas meal. Of course it included all of the classics found around most tables, but the Wilcox family added a Norwegian twist: a heaping helping of lutefisk.
Lutefisk is a dried cod that is soaked in a lye solution for several days before being boiled and served with butter and salt. It is just one of a variety of traditional holiday Norwegian dishes, and it was always present at the Christmas Eve celebration, thanks to my children’s great grandmother, a marvelous woman of Norwegian descent, Betty Nugent Wilcox.
In addition to the lutefisk tradition, Betty’s nephew, Brian—dressed as St. Nick himself—would sneak inside the mid-century Benzie County home, surprising the children with an orange pulled from his red Santa sack. Although there are several explanations for the giving of oranges on Christmas, my favorite stems from European folklore. St. Nicholas, a wealthy man devoted to helping others, learned of a poor man who was unable to find suitors for his three daughters because he could not afford their dowry. So, St. Nick traveled to the man’s house, climbed on top of the roof, and dropped three sacks of gold down the chimney. These sacks happened to land in each of the girls’ stockings that were hanging by the fire to dry.
Now, oranges are placed in stockings to symbolize the gold that was left so many years ago. Thanks to Betty, and her nephew Brian, the seeds of that tradition were planted for yet another generation of children.
Tradition is the very reason Al Uryga decided to pack up his sleigh and take his Santa sessions on the road. For the past 30 years, Al would take on the role of Santa Claus for small gatherings, nonprofit events and for his own family. In fact, every Christmas Eve, Al waited outside with his family gathering for his cue. Once his family to started singing Jingle Bells, Santa would appear. But, due to the pandemic, those kinds of traditions were at risk of being lost this year.
“My wife and I were really sad,” Al explains, “W e knew that things were going to be different this year, but when our Thanksgiving plan got canceled, and we knew Santa would have to be behind plexiglass, we decided to bring Santa directly to the kids.”
The Dashing Santa, along with his helper, Snowflake the Elf, offer a safe and socially distant opportunity for families to create their own Christmas memories. By using what Al calls “Santa scenarios” families set the stage for an unforgettable visit from the jolly old man himself.
“Imagine you’re decorating the Christmas tree with the kids,” says Al, “Every time you pull out an ornament, you have a Christmas memory. Then, all of the sudden, there’s a knock on the door and the air fills with Ho-Ho-Hos and you hear sleigh bells as Santa is visiting your home. It’s like a scene from your own private Christmas movie.”
Decorating the tree is just one of the Santa scenario suggestions from , “You could be having your kids do a Christmas craft, watching a Christmas movie, or writing a letter to Santa and then, out of nowhere, Santa is there.”
And, it’s a memory that kids will have for a lifetime.
“That’s really my goal. I want to get kids to believe in Santa until they’re 92,” said Al.
In the spirit of a socially distanced Christmas, The Dashing Santa will maintain his distance and wear a mask. And, he asks family members to do the same, “This is really meant to be for individual families from the same household. We want everyone to stay safe, so we don’t want groups from other households to gather for a Santa session.”
The Dashing Santa is scheduling sessions around Grand Traverse and Leelanau County now. If you’re interested in having a visit you can
Rates are $49 per session through December 23rd and $99 on Christmas Eve.
“It is a different year, and that can feel sad,” Al says, “But we are hoping to bring as much joy to the kids as possible. And, it’s as much fun for me and my wife as it is for the kids. Playing Santa is one of my favorite things. To see the look in the kids’ eyes, the look of disbelief and joy from a child who believes is just amazing.”