Even Santa needs help sometimes. How else would he deliver all those toys? But for one recent visit to Shishmaref, Old St. Nick didn’t rely on elves or reindeer — he had a lot of human helpers, instead.
Amy MacPherson is the assistant principal at Shishmaref’s only school. And on the day of Santa’s arrival, she was in a hurry. She threw the school truck into gear, and headed for the airport – dialing phone numbers along the way.
You see, Santa was running late.
Inclement weather had delayed his sleigh – which, this year, took the form of a Hercules C-130 cargo plane borrowed from the Alaska Air National Guard. Santa’s visit to Shishmaref was part of a partnership between the guard and Old St. Nick.
It’s called “Operation Santa Claus,” and it’s not just a present drop, but a full holiday celebration.
Every few years, with a National Guard escort, Santa and the missus pay advance visits to a few communities around the state — schlepping pounds of goodies, ranging from toothbrushes and backpacks to ice cream sundaes and a full brass band.
But transporting Santa without his reindeer is a bit of a challenge. And with the weather delay, MacPherson had lost some of her helpers. After a few calls, however, a team of snow machines arrived at the airport — just in time to watch the plane land.
It turns out Santa wasn’t the only attraction. Kids and grown-ups alike gathered to watch the behemoth touch down. As the engine cooled, MacPherson directed snow machines to the back of the cargo plane — where Santa’s human helpers quickly packed presents onto the back of every sled.
Santa himself was the last to disembark. He and Mrs. Claus caught a ride with MacPherson back to the school, and a throng of waiting children and their parents.
As the band set up, MacPherson opened the school doors and marveled at the size of the crowd. Several hundred people were lined up to see Santa and the holiday festivities. And the traditions that many people associate with Christmas — like singing carols or eating treats — were part of what made the celebration so unique.
Reflecting after the event, MacPherson said the face-to-face visit with Santa was a first for many in Shishmaref.
“You know it was more special in the sense of the treats that were brought,” she said. “We had elders who, in their 70s, had never had an ice cream sundae before… A lot of the kids came over and said, ‘This is really silly music they’re playing!’ or ‘I don’t like this music.’ And that’s because they were playing horns. And they’d never heard live music played by horns before. So it was a treat for a lot of people because they got to experience a lot of firsts.”
MacPherson explained that Shishmaref has its own Christmas traditions — a celebration that includes sled dog races, Eskimo games, foot races and more traditional music.
She said Operation Santa Claus was an opportunity for the community to participate in new traditions, and to share some of their own.
By the end of Santa’s stay, the brass band had been exchanged for traditional drum music.
“They have, as a community, a lot of their own traditions for Christmas. And they’re fantastic! But it is different that what operation Santa Claus brought with them,” said MacPherson.
Rather than taking away from the community traditions, however, she said Santa’s arrival only added to the festive atmosphere. But does that mean Shishmaref will go without its usual celebration and games this year? Mac Pherson said: not a chance.