Asa Clay sat in a Bryan County fire truck and pulled on his white gloves as the driver approached the Main Street subdivision in Richmond Hill on Monday night.
“Here we go, fellas,” said Clay, a captain in the Bryan County Fire Department, to the five other volunteer firefighters riding with him.
Jeff Dew, the driver, stopped and turned on the truck’s lights and siren. Capt. Ron Becker and firefighters Jeremy Owens and James MaQuiage stepped out and held onto the sides of the fire truck. Dew moved forward and slowly turned the truck onto Shady Oak Circle. Kevin Rasch, another volunteer, handed them candy canes while Clay readied himself for his debut.
Dew sounded the air horn then reached for the loudspeaker.
“Merry Christmas everyone!” he said. “Santa’s here! Come out and see Santa!”
It didn’t take long before kids busted out of their front doors barefoot – some pulling on jackets and others wrapped in blankets – and ran to the end of their driveways. Clay, jollily dressed as Santa Claus, greeted the kids’ smiling faces, handed them candy canes and wished them a merry Christmas.
“It’s just amazing,” Becker said of how happy Santa’s visit makes Bryan County children – and adults. “I feel like a little kid again.”
For the past week, Bryan County firefighters braved the frigid nights to visit all the neighborhoods in South Bryan with Santa Claus to spread some holiday cheer. Three fire trucks went out with volunteers and Santa each night. During the rounds, firefighters also collected new, unwrapped toys to donate to Bryan County’s needy children.
Clay and the other firefighters met in the parking lot of the Richmond Hill Middle School before they set out on their tour of Main Street subdivision Monday. They packed up bunker gear in case there was a fire call – firefighters do stop the Santa visits to respond to emergencies – and packed two cases of candy canes to give out.
“He’ll have to take his shoes off to count,” Clay said of the volunteer loading the cases of candy canes on the fire truck.
When the firefighters arrived in Main Street just after 6 p.m., Dew cruised through the neighborhood announcing Santa’s presence while blowing the air horn in tune to “Jingle Bells.”
The other volunteers, ready with handfuls of candy canes, kept a keen eye out for opening doors and kids. They let Dew know when to slow down or stop so Santa could greet a resident. During the stops, Dew sometimes played Christmas music from his iPhone into the loudspeaker.
Some kids jumped up and down when they saw the fire truck approach with Santa onboard. Some handed Clay their Christmas wish lists while one group sang a Christmas carol. Even childless adults stepped outside to wave at the passing fire truck. Through the entire ride, Clay managed to not miss a child. He waved to everyone and even posed for photos.
The firefighters said Monday they don’t mind giving up the three hours or so each night for a week to meet and greet Bryan County residents. Each said they do it for the kids.
“I like seeing the kids’ faces light up when Santa comes to see them,” said Rasch, who has been a volunteer firefighter for three years.
Brian Baraniak, a Main Street resident, agreed.
“It’s awesome for the kids,” he said as he watched one of children greet Santa.
Dew noted that Santa’s visits are not just for the kids. It also lets the community know that the Bryan County Fire Department is there even when it is not an emergency, he said.
“[It] lets the community know we are always around and doing things for them,” he said.
During Monday’s Santa visit, one resident banged on the side of the fire truck and thanked the firefighters. Becker said it makes it all worthwhile when people tell the firefighters how much they appreciate them.
Becker said he hopes to wear Santa’s red suit one day. This year, firefighters Ed Willis and Robert Jordan were the two other Santas that rode on the fire trucks. Terry Nielsen, a firefighter who passed away earlier this year, was a Santa in previous years. Dew said he usually rode in the truck with Nielsen as Santa.
“We miss him this year,” Clay said.
Clay, who has six grandchildren, has been a Bryan County Fire Department Santa since 2002. Dew said being Santa is one of Clay’s favorite things to do every year.
“He loves doing it,” Dew said of Clay.
The firefighters ended Monday night’s run around 8:30 p.m. after they visited every street in the Main Street subdivision. One case of candy canes was gone. Clay didn’t take off his Santa hat or beard until they left the subdivision, just in case he had to give out one more candy cane or greet one more child.
Even though Clay couldn’t feel his feet, he and the other firefighters agreed they just had a ball that night.
“Kids love it,” he said. “And we love it.”