Let’s all take a step back in time to 1979; The 444 day ordeal known as The Iranian hostage crisis began, Margret Thatcher and a 39 year old Joe Clark were both elected as Prime Ministers, Pope John Paul II made his much celebrated visit to Poland, and of local importance; the Russell Santa Express began. Looking back at those other events, for those of us who remember, 1979 certainly seems like such a long time ago. In truth, there are parents of children in Russell that weren’t even born when the Santa Express began, OK by now a good number of you are starting to feel very old. It just goes to show how long this wonderful Russell tradition has endured, however the ironic thing about the Santa Express is that like many traditions it was started by accident. The first Santa Express was not meant to be a Santa Express at all; the original plan was for Ron Hubbard and Roger Pharand to drive a group of Christmas carolers around Russell on a fire truck for Christmas Eve. Unfortunately as it happened, the carolers never showed up – so Ron and Roger thought since they were both already out, why not drive Santa around a few streets for a lark, needless to say they both didn’t know that this lark would turn into a 15 year commitment for them both and a time honoured tradition in Russell for the next 30 years. The commitment was not just Ron and Roger’s, for the Hubbards it turned into a family affair as Judy and the kids would ride in the truck with Ron as he shuttled Santa around town. For the Pharand family it meant sacrifice, Roger’s wife Arlene wanted him to attend Mass with the family, but duty called and Arlene unfortunately didn’t get her way for many years. The family tradition of running the Santa Express still exists today, now it’s the Armstrong family that plan their entire Christmas Eve around this event, as have other Fire Department families over the years, such as; The Bourguignons, The Murrays, The Seguins and the Cashmans. As a matter of fact Santa also helped one of our firefighters with a marriage proposal just last year.
The Santa Express is not just what people see riding around the streets, a very large part of this annual event is hidden from the public, after all getting Santa to every street in Russell requires a team effort, not just the team on the truck but the hidden “North Pole” dispatchers who track and coordinate Santa’s route. Greg and Angela Burgess had the honour of being the first “North Pole” dispatchers, now the responsibility lies on the capable shoulders of Joanne Armstrong. The dispatchers let Santa know how he is doing for time and if he has to make any special visits. Santa has in the past visited sick children who are home from hospital to spend Christmas with their families. There was even a personal birthday wish one year for an 80 year old lady whose face lit up like a child’s when she realized it was Santa himself wishing her a happy birthday. All in all, ask anyone who has been a part of the Santa Express over the many years and they will tell you how rewarding it is, just seeing the kids and families lining the streets waiting to say hello is all the incentive needed to keep this tradition alive. Some families have even told us how the Express has influenced traditions for them and their friends. Every year Christmas Eve has to be in Russell as friends and family insist that they have to see the Santa Express to make the Christmas season official, it truly is a unique Russell tradition. As the department has modernized over the last number of years technology has crept into the Santa Express. Families of the fire fighters no longer have to hassle the North Pole dispatchers to inquire about the whereabouts of the express, we can simply follow the progress on our pagers. In my home our little tradition is that the youngest child gets the opportunity to wear the pager for the evening, that way they can let everyone know when Santa is approaching. It’s actually quite comical to see the youngest child be the centre of attention and all the other children – and some adults - follow them around for the entire night, or at least until Santa goes by the house.
Up until now I am sure you are all thinking that the Santa Express is all sugarplums and fairies, and everything comes off completely as planned, well not quite. Think about it, we’re driving around an entire village in the winter with a chubby elf perched, often precariously, on top of a fire truck, what could possibly go wrong with this? Well plenty, how about the year when freezing rain made the ice laden hydro wires hang a little low on one street. So low that they clotheslined an unsuspecting Santa who ended up floundering around on his back like an overturned turtle, the worst part was that it took the driver; Ron Hubbard, half a block to notice that Santa was even missing. No doubt Ron was in the middle of a very important discussion at the time. Or the time that the truck actually broke down en route, so how did Santa deal with that? To the astonishment of many drivers that night, he simply got off the truck and directed traffic himself. Even last year, just as the Express was about to hit the road the absolute worst thing that could happen, happened - the pagers went off. The Russell Fire Department received a call for a vehicle collision. The sight was one for the books, as a speeding fire truck flew down Craig Street complete with sleigh strapped to the roof, Christmas lights dangling from all sides, and signs with Christmas Wishes attached to the side of the truck flying off in all directions. The look on the OPP officers’ faces when they caught site of us arriving on scene was one we will never forget. However to be honest, the first thing we checked when getting out of the truck was to see if the sleigh was still with us. Fortunately it was, and we didn’t have to deal with a second collision involving flying sleighs.
This often brings up the most asked question about the Santa Express; What would we do if a fire call came in during the express? This most secret of secrets is about to be unveiled, Santa himself has received extensive training from the Russell Fire Department over the last 30 years, so much so that if a call were to come in he would simply jump inside the truck and respond with us. Being the second longest standing member of the department, besides Ron Hubbard, he might even assume command. Another question we are often asked is how do we ensure that every home is visited before 8:30pm? Considering that the express starts at 5:30 pm that only gives us three hours to visit every street in Russell, Marionville and North Russell. And the Santa Express rarely ever travels any faster than a walking pace. This is another deep secret within the fire department, and the answer is that we rely on a little Christmas magic provided by Santa himself. Just as he is able to visit all the homes of the world in one night, he does the same for us. One might even think we were in two places at the same time.
A large part of being involved with the Santa Express is experiencing the gratitude of all the people en route. As Christmas Eve is often a little chilly many people are often worried about Santa getting cold as he completes his voyage around Russell, so it is common for Santa and his elves to be offered warm beverages to help keep the chill off them. Especially beverages that have the ability to “warm” you from the inside, unfortunately some years this resulted in poor Santa not being as steady as he should be as he sat on top of the truck, so his red nose and flushed cheeks were not always the result of the biting winter winds, just overgenerous residents sharing their Christmas cheer. Fortunately the elves who ride along with Santa now take charge of this and make sure Santa remains steady and safe as he completes his route.
The Santa Express as mentioned previously is truly a unique Russell tradition, it creates the sort of memories that children will keep with them for the rest of their lives. In the hustle and bustle of modern life and the over the top commercialization of Christmas it helps keeps our community connected to the past, and keeps that “small town” feeling alive. As Russell has grown we may not know every person we come across en route as in years past, but it certainly is a great way to meet new people and start traditions for new families. The first 30 years have come and gone, now we have the next 30 years to look forward to. The names will change, other people will take up the challenge, but you can be certain that as long as the Russell Fire Department exists Santa will make his annual trip around Russell on Christmas Eve.
The Russell Fire Department would very much appreciate if anyone with photos of the Santa Express over the years wouldn’t mind sharing them with us. Either contact any one of our firefighters, call the fire hall at 445-3326 or email them to; email@example.com
Published Dec 16, 2009 - Russell Villager