Rick Wells as Santa Claus
Santa waves to a passing car on Friday night at Philomath’s Community Christmas Tree Lighting. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Back seven or eight years ago — he couldn’t pin down exactly when — Rick Wells donned a Santa Claus suit for the first time at the Newport Historic Bayfront.

“It was the same night at the Christmas Boat Parade so they had a lot of stuff going on down there on the bayfront,” Wells said. “That’s how it all started and it bloomed into me doing it a lot.”

For a collection of images from Friday
evening’s Philomath’s Community
Christmas Tree Lighting event, click here.

Wells, who will be 62 later this month, sat atop Philomath Fire & Rescue’s Old Engine No. 1 on Friday evening to the delight of youngsters passing by in vehicles. Of course in pre-pandemic times, Santa could climb down off the antique fire engine after arriving and meet with the kids while passing out candy canes and posing for photos.

“I love to see the look on the kid’s face and the joy that it brings to them,” Wells said.

This year, Santa had to interact from afar as he and the children had settled for waving to one another. The rest of the tree-lighting event also needed to be changed with no countdown or people allowed to stop and get out of their vehicles. But the Philomath Area Chamber of Commerce never considered canceling it and did the best that they could under COVID-19 restrictions.

Wells said the Philomath Christmas tree event will be his only appearance this year in the Santa suit.

“I’m just a little nervous with this COVID thing and I go in for surgery after Christmas and I don’t want anything to disrupt that,” he said. “We’re having a low profile this year.”

“I love to see the look on the kid’s
face and the joy that it brings to them.
— Rick Wells as Santa Claus

Wells, who lives in Kings Valley and is “probably 10 for 15 miles from where I grew up as a crow flies,” doesn’t have any of his own early childhood memories of Santa, nor did he dress up as the jolly elf for his own kids. After a few groups of friends started talking, Newport business owner Sharon Biddinger ended up hiring Wells for that night on the bayfront. And he’s been doing it ever since.

In a normal year, Wells would start off the holiday season with a trip up to Stayton for a toy drive with the fire department.

“One of the guys I work with was an officer there and he got me involved in it,” Wells said. “We’d just go up there and hang around for a few hours. And then I usually run from that over to Newport in the afternoon and do the photos with Santa over there.”

That would be at Biddinger’s Simply Designed Studios.

Other appearances would follow at the Christmas tree-lighting event and at the local library, and in Mill City at the North Santiam Eagles Lodge (which, by the way, did survive the fire). He used to stop at a daycare in Toledo but the owner moved away and he even visited a retirement home in Keizer — more on that below.

On Christmas Eve, Santa’s busiest night of the year, Wells would go over to Albany.

“There’s a Hispanic family, extended family, over there and they’d have it at the (Fairmount) Grange Hall in North Albany and Santa would show up with the presents, which were accumulated outside, and he packed them in and passed them out to the kids,” Wells said. “And then we would just criss-cross coming home, stopping at different people’s houses with Santa just showing up and saying hi, and then we’re off to another house.”

The Santa suit that Wells wears is “just a cheapie,” as he describes it, but added. “I’d love to find either someone who could make a good one or find a good one that’s for sale.”

No matter what the quality of the suit might be, people of all ages enjoy seeing Santa.

“It’s a lot of fun, I really enjoy doing it for the kids and for the adults, too,” Wells said. “We stop and see some adults sometimes. They enjoy seeing Santa.”

Most children enjoy interacting with Santa — not all — but most.

“Every now and then, not very often, you get the ones who are just totally afraid of Santa Claus and want nothing to do with Santa and they’re screaming,” Wells said. “But some of those are the best pictures … and the parents are like, ‘wow, wait another 15, 20 years and they can look back on that and see what they did here.”

Wells has interacted with a lot of youngsters over those seven, maybe eight years. But one of his most memorable Santa gigs didn’t involve children at all. Wells remembers the drive up to Keizer for the appearance.

“I don’t hear too well, so I thought I was going to do like a daycare and I pulled into the address and thought, ‘I must be at the wrong place.’ So I called the lady, and said, ‘hey, I’m here at this place’ and she said, ‘yeah, that’s it’ and I’m going, OK, the retirement home.”

It turned out to be a highlight of his Santa adventures.

“I tell you what, now those people hadn’t seen Santa — some of them probably in a lot of years — and they were talking about childhood things that they did and that was just super,” Wells said. “You couldn’t believe what that does for those elderly people like that to see Santa Claus and have him there helping serve lunch.”

After the meal, Santa helped distribute gifts in a fun afternoon for all.