This is crunch time for David Dalrymple. The long-time logistics coordinator for the Bedford Santa program is fine-tuning schedules and routes and teams, all to ensure a memorable 76th annual Christmas Eve for hundreds of families.
“We want to keep as much of Clayton Morrill’s vision as we can,” he said, referencing the legendary Bedford selectman who launched the program in 1946.
Morrill’s mission, envisioned amidst postwar uncertainty, was to ensure that every child would receive a Christmas gift – personally from Santa Claus. That’s still how it works today, with families pre-arranging deliveries by costumed volunteers who radiate the personality and power of Santa.
A year ago, deterred by the uncertainty of the proliferating pandemic, Bedford Santa went all virtual, producing more than 200 personalized video visits.
Now, a week before the big night, the tradition has gone hybrid. This year volunteer Santas have recorded about 75 presentations. And more than 200 deliveries will take place the evening of Dec. 24 the traditional way – through the front door.
Parents for the most part were comfortable with a stranger visiting the house, while several volunteer Clauses preferred the virtual route, Dalrymple said. This year, he said, there aren’t enough Bedford Santas to accommodate last-minute requests.
“We started planning right after Labor Day and the eight or ten of us on the steering group kicked the can down the road to November to decide” on the details of execution.
Dalrymple said he has been working closely with Katharine Dagle, the town’s Assistant Director of Health, on safety protocols. Their next meeting will be Tuesday. “We want to get the latest on the virus, and her crystal ball is probably clearer than mine,” he said, adding, “None of us wants to be responsible for anybody getting sick from Covid.”
“This year we are matching Santas to about 16 houses with no more than 10 minutes inside, at the most 15, to minimize any Covid issues,” he said.
That sounds like plenty of time; indeed, some of the younger Santas are in and out in five minutes, Dalrymple said. But over the years, there were volunteers like Joe Binsack, who left John Glenn Middle School at 5:30 and didn’t return for four hours, spending 20 minutes or more at each house. Binsack died in 2005 at age 68.
Dalrymple reminisced about other legendary volunteers, such as Judge John Forte, the former town moderator, whose 2008 obituary read, “He took pride in being a Bedford Santa for 50 years.” Some of the program’s gear is still stored at his former property. Dalrymple said he will also miss Vincent “Al” Fay, a 40-year Santa who died in July.
On Christmas Eve, Bedford Santa won’t be wearing a mask; almost the only part of the face exposed after costuming are the eyes, Dalrymple pointed out. But each Santa Claus will be carrying a mask for emergencies. Almost all of the in-person Santa Causes have had three Covid vaccinations, he added.
Dalrymple calls his roster of volunteer Santa Clauses a “bathtub curve:” several volunteers a few years out of high school, and the remainder with grown children. “There are no Santas in their 30s,” he testified. And there are no females playing the roles, though there are plenty of women whose roles behind the scenes are crucial.
The volunteers who take the Santa Claus role seriously. “I have four Santas that have their own suits. All they need are makeup, wig, and beard,” Dalrymple said. One of them is State Rep. Kenneth Gordon, a long-time volunteer who is recording his deliveries this year.
Another veteran Bedford Santa is also staying virtual – Dave Johnson, who resides in Poughkeepsie, NY. (Johnson was featured on a WBUR segment showcasing Bedford Santa that aired almost a year ago: https://www.wbur.org/radioboston/2020/12/23/bedford-santas-program.)
The in-person Bedford Santas, teamed with drivers and checkers, will be driving with face masks and open windows, Dalrymple related.
He is deliberating about the best way to launch the flotilla of gift-bearing vehicles Friday night. Historically, the volunteers dress in the John Glenn Middle School cafeteria, and then “I send all Santas en masse at 5:30.”
This month, Dalrymple related, the school will open more space for preparations – “as many rooms as I need” – to ensure safety. Dalrymple is considering a staggered start for the teams between 5 and 6.
At each house, “We want them to get the kids all excited,” Dalrymple said. The template is familiar: Santa Claus identifies the children to match with the appropriate gifts, and then it’s photo time. Families are smaller now than a generation ago, Dalrymple acknowledged, but cousins and other family members gather at some residences – there’s one with 13 kids.
He tries to keep the volunteer Clauses on the same routes, year after year. “As kids get to be six or seven, they remember,” he said. Santa Claus also welcomes opportunities to see kids grow, occasionally even sharing Christmas Eve with a second generation.
The virtual messages have two different endings, Dalrymple related, in an effort to “keep it as close to what a real Christmas Eve would be.” The children are advised, depending on preference, to look for a present, or go to bed and find the reward in the morning.
Dalrymple has been serving as a Bedford Santa volunteer since he was in elementary school. “In 1966, my dad needed help on gift drop day,” he remembered. Dave Dalrymple joined his first delivery team in the early 1970s.
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at [email protected], or 781-983-1763