Santa prepares to head out into the streets to greet residents of Russell. Courtesy photo

David Strong
Special to the Villager

RUSSELL – Let’s all take a step back in time to 1979: the 444-day ordeal known as the Iranian hostage crisis began; Margaret Thatcher and a 39-year-old Joe Clark were both elected as prime ministers, and of local importance, the Russell Santa Express began. For those of us who remember, 1979 certainly seems like a long time ago. In truth, there are many parents of children in Russell that weren’t even born when the Santa Express began.

The irony is that the Santa Express, like many traditions, was started by accident. 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, the carolers didn’t show 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 didn’t know that this lark would turn into a 15-year commitment for them and a time-honoured tradition in Russell for the next 40 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.

Now it’s the Armstrong family that plans its Christmas Eve around this event, as have other fire department families over the years, such as the Bourguignons, the Murrays, the Cashmans and now the Leclairs.

Speaking of families, Santa helped one of our firefighters with a marriage proposal 11 years ago.

Behind the scenes
The Santa Express is not just what people see riding around the streets – a very large part of this annual event is not visible to the public. After all, getting Santa to every street in Russell requires a team effort, including 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 sometimes visited sick children who are home from the 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.

Ask anyone who has been a part of the Santa Express over the 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. It truly is a Russell tradition.

Mishaps and mistakes
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? Well, plenty. How about the year 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. It took the driver, Ron Hubbard, half a block to notice that Santa was even missing. Or the time that the truck broke down en route. How did Santa deal with that? To the astonishment of many drivers that night, he simply got off the truck and directed traffic himself.

Eleven years ago, 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 with sleigh strapped to the roof and Christmas lights dangling from all sides. The look on the OPP officers’ faces when they caught site of us arriving on scene was one we will never forget.

The Santa Express is a 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 keep our community connected to the past, and keeps that “small town” feeling alive.

Share your photos
The Russell Fire Department would appreciate if anyone with photos of the Santa Express over the years would share them with us. Please post them to our Facebook page so we are able to share them with the entire community.

Read more about the Santa Express, including behind-the-scene secrets, next week.