The magic of Flying Santa, and how much it means to Coast Guard kids and their parents — who change assignments and their homes every three years — is crystal clear to Chief Boatswain’s Mate William Donahue.
The 21-year veteran from Westborough, an instructor at the Coast Guard Academy’s Leadership Development Center in New London, Conn., first experienced the tradition in 1994 while stationed in Chatham.
“You don’t make much money as a junior enlisted,” he said. “I was bringing home maybe $200 a week then, and had a wife and two young kids.
“It feels so good to know how much the community values and cares about you.”
Treasured stories, along with photographs, have piled up like snow over the years. Make that Edward Rowe Snow, who relished playing the role of Flying Santa for more than 40 years.
Snow’s long association began in 1933, when Wincapaw moved his family from Maine to Winthrop, Mass. Snow was Bill Jr.’s history teacher at Winthrop High. In 1934, at age 16, Bill Jr. became the youngest licensed pilot in Massachusetts and started helping his father with the Santa flights. Intrigued, Snow joined them in 1936.
Marshfield resident Dolly Snow Bicknell, Edward Rowe Snow’s daughter, loves telling stories about her famous dad, a master chronicler of New England’s maritime history and author of more than 40 books. While still an infant, she accompanied her parents on the bumpy flights aboard a 5-seater that Snow hired.
“He’d wrap the gifts in newspaper, excelsior, and brown paper on the outside,’’ Bicknell said. He used the excelsior, a padding made from shredded wood fibers, “so that if the package hit land, it bounced. If water, it floated,’’ she said.
Each package was then marked with a special code: S, for stag, meant the contents were for a location with no women; D stood for doll, F for family, and there was even a marking for bundles carrying a few doggie biscuits for sites with a pet.
Snow prided himself on his 94 percent accuracy rate, rightly claimed because he had proof: within each package, he’d include a stamped, self-addressed postcard for the keeper to return.
Bicknell, who has a collection of the cards, said many returned with the message, “You have made our Christmas.”
Mishaps, she laughed, did happen, however; the list includes smashed car windows and skylights, broken fences, cracked porcelain dolls, lost beards and Santa hats, and packages that floated out to sea.
One year, Snow’s Santa beard flew out the window on a flight, but it eventually was returned, with its own note. “Here’s your beard,” the finder wrote. “Where’s my package?”
Gifts, all paid for by her parents, expanded to include sunglasses, balloons, pen and pencil sets, and books, Bicknell said.
“If the book was racy, my mother would rip the cover off, but still allow them to go,” she said. And, she added, “always a copy of my father’s latest book.” Before Snow’s death in 1982, he grew concerned that Flying Santa would die with him. The fledgling Hull Life Saving Museum, which formed in 1982, stepped in, said Ed McCabe, one of its founders. Helicopters were rounded up, presents bought, and McCabe, as the only male museum member, suited up as Snow’s successor.
“Dolly and her mother presented me with Mr. Snow’s Santa suit,” McCabe said.
The magical wonder of Santa flying in and bringing presents is irresistible at any age, Bicknell said. Donahue agrees. His kids, now 19, 16, and 12, still join in as Santa’s helpers.
But Donahue remembers one time Santa wasn’t so welcomed by his second daughter, then 16 months old, who began howling during his landing when the family was stationed in Chatham.
Unfazed, his then-3-year-old daughter said, “Don’t worry, Santa, she’s crazy about you.”
Kathy Shiels Tully can be reached at kathyshielstully@ gmail.com.