Most children find Santa — yawn — in the mall.
But for 700 Coast Guard kids and their families across six states, in 33 locations from Jones Beach in New York to Jonesport, Maine, Santa finds them every December — flying in by helicopter.
No matter which Coast Guard station Santa is visiting, the scene is the same. Like on Dec. 15 in Hull, where 60 to 70 youngsters and their parents enjoyed hot chocolate, eggnog, and Christmas cookies inside the mess hall while they waited. Suddenly, there was a shout: “Here comes Santa!”
Everyone ran outside to watch, wave, and wait. After circling three times, the chopper finally landed and Santa emerged with a large green sack filled with gifts.
The scene was repeated across the region, including at stops in Gloucester, Newburyport, Portsmouth, N.H., and Scituate, this month.
Brian Tague, a Stoneham resident, receives heaps of credit for sustaining the program, which dates to 1929. As director of the nonprofit Friends of Flying Santa for the past 22 years, Tague, like his score of volunteers, doesn’t receive a salary, yet treats his responsibilities like a job.
As a professional photographer, Tague has specialized in snapping images of wildlife, lighthouses, and New England landscapes for more than 25 years. He observed firsthand the dedication of Coast Guard men and women while photographing stations, boats, and aircraft. In 1991, he became the official Flying Santa photographer.
Today, he’s the president of the program’s board of trustees, its unofficial historian, and Christmas shopper extraordinaire.
Imagine shopping for 700 presents. Tague said he starts in mid-September, buying each gift, for $10 to $12, with donations raised from various events, such as sold-out Cape Cod lighthouse cruises narrated by Jeremy D’Entremont, a renowned author and historian.
“One hundred percent raised goes straight into the program,” said Tague.
With typically two volunteers filling Santa’s role and requiring multiple helicopter flights spread over four days in early to mid-December, Tague’s coordination of scheduling is critical.
New England weather adds an unknown factor. Though the trip to the Coast Guard station in Portsmouth, N.H., early this month went off without a hitch, subsequent flights were postponed by fog, wind, and rain. Tague twice had to reschedule the trip stopping in Scituate, Hull, Newburyport, and Gloucester. Finally, the sun came out last weekend and Flying Santa completed his last series of stops this season through blue skies.
Throughout the day, crowds of delighted kids and their families greeted Santa, first at Scituate Light, then at Coast Guard Station Point Allerton in Hull. Santa also made a special drop-and-greet landing, complete with candy canes, at the nearby Hull Lifesaving Museum, to the delight of about 100 local kids and their parents. He then flew off to complete the day’s rounds with stops at Coast Guard stations in Gloucester and Newburyport.
For the past 12 years, three helicopter companies have donated aircraft and services, said Tague, saving the Friends of Flying Santa an estimated $15,000 to $20,000 a year. He praises the pilots: Evan Wile, Greg Harville, and George Louzek of Granite State Aviation, and Ray Newcomb and Kurt West of JBI Helicopters.
“Their generosity blows me away,” Tague said. “If not for the pilots and helicopter owners, we’d be the ‘Driving Santa’ program.”
Wile’s reason for getting involved is personal. “My uncle was a captain in the Coast Guard in the ’50s,” he said. “I donate the flights in his name.”
The appreciation goes both ways. Wile said that one year, Tom Guthlein, who recently retired from the Coast Guard as a chief warrant officer but who has served in the select corps of Flying Santas since 1997, took the captain’s hat that was worn by Wile’s uncle and had it fixed and the gold rebraided.
The “Flying Santa” tradition began in 1929 when Captain Bill Wincapaw, a Maine floatplane pilot and aviation pioneer, decided to drop small gifts to lighthouse keepers in gratitude for their work maintaining the beacons, which for early aviators and mariners was their only navigational tool.
Wincapaw flew to a dozen lighthouses on the Maine coast that year, tossing wrapped gifts — purchased at his own expense — of newspapers, candy, magazines, and coffee.
The much-appreciated deliveries by “Flying Santa” became an annual tradition, and expanded over the years to cover the rest of the New England coast and part of New York.
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.”