Fred and Mary Ramsdell have been the Key Peninsula’s most popular people at Christmas-time for many years. Known better as Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus during that time of year, they have braved windstorms, rain, sleet and snow to ride around neighborhoods, bringing along cheer, hugs and candy canes.

The years have transformed the landscape — new subdivisions popped up, streets got paved and the roads filled with cars — and changed the faces of neighborhoods as kids grew up and second- or third-generation lap sitters came out to greet Santa. And as much as the neighborhoods could count on new homes going in and roads getting more crowded every year, they could count on Santa Ramsdell coming along, rain or cold, to wish them a Merry Christmas.

In December, the cheerful sleigh rides around the Key Peninsula were bittersweet. By this time next year, Fred and Mary will trade the chilly Northwest weather for sunny days in Hawaii. After three decades, their December 2005 Santa act was the last one.

The news hasn’t escaped many “regulars” who have been waiting outside their homes every year to greet the couple. As they drove their routes for the last time, the Ramsdells received many well-wishes and even tears, hearing many times over they will be missed.

“I just want to wish Santa and Mrs. Santa a good flight over Hawaii next year,” a man with a young girl in his arms tells the couple near the Lakebay Christian Assembly. He has caught up with the Santa sleigh on the couple’s penultimate night as they were stopped by a group of cheering teens.

This night is a long one as they cover Jackson Lake, Home, Joemma Beach and other areas — but not as long as two nights earlier, on an exhaustive run around several subdivisions like Lake Holiday. In Santa’s younger days, he would run up to every house to deliver a candy cane. He still sprints from group to group and up many driveways, but it’s easier to run out of steam. Although they no longer trek every single road as they did in the early days — because of the sleigh’s maneuverability — the proliferation of digital cameras and the growing populace have made the runs longer. Another trend has also emerged — kids used to run out on their own years ago, and now the Santa “greet and hug” has become more of a family event.

This last year, the weather has been kind. Only a few rains and a low moisture level made the cold more bearable. A couple passing by the sleigh with their dog jokes, “Do you guys have a heater in there?”

The sleigh, which does have a generator to run the lights, the music and the PA system, indeed has no heater. While Fred keeps warm rushing in and out of the sleigh, Mary must keep busy unpacking the candy canes. She can only wear one glove in order to open the wrapped boxes, and by the end of the night her fingers are red and freezing. Even the candy canes don’t like the cold — the brittle sweet treats keep breaking.

The Ramsdells recall their startup days, when originally they rode on the back of the old fire trucks, which entailed being regularly drenched. Their mode of transportation has changed from the fire truck to a brush pickup and eventually to the sleigh, designed by artist Bev Pedersen who worked at the fire district. Fred and several other volunteers built the sleigh, which originally had no roof and no windshield. The modern version looks quite lovable, with the reindeers perched on top of a pickup that hauls the former trailer. But no heater. And not very good suspension — which means the riders feel every speed bump and pothole during the rough rides.

“You always hope Rudolph has his skids on,” Mary jokes as the sleigh takes a steep downhill toward Von Geldern Cove.

As the sleigh approaches a neighborhood, loud sirens from an accompanying fire truck or ambulance alert the residents. This night, however, the ambulance had to respond to a call just 15 minutes into the route. No matter. Santa talks on the PA system the entire time, even singing along to the tunes played through the loudspeakers. “Ho, ho, ho! Happy Holidays!” “Enjoy each other!” “Be Happy!” “Come on, Rudolph!” Everyone in the caravan, which also includes a command rig when possible, looks out for children and adults. In the dark, it’s not easy to spot eagerly waiting residents. Santa, Mrs. Claus says, is like an owl: He may not see the kids, but he can hear them from far away.

The wooden Rudolph and all the other reindeer cast a shadow on the ground as the sleigh glides through the neighborhoods, passing multiple children in pajamas and bare feet (a sight that hasn’t changed through years, Mary says), various homes that look like mini-wonderlands with spectacular holiday light displays, dogs that get their own treats from the ol’ fellah, people waving from inside their warm homes, and the many adults who come out on their porches or into the streets to give a hug, briefly chat, and get a candy cane. “This time of year, there is no such thing as age, we are all young,” Santa booms on the mic.

The Ramsdells have been donning their Christmas attire ever since they found out the Spanaway fire department did a Santa run and wanted to bring something similar to the Key Peninsula. At first, they did only some neighborhoods every year as the KP Firefighters Association, who sponsors the Santa visits, had several “actors.” But with time, Fred did more and more routes and eventually became the official deal, also making appearances at the tree lighting and other KP events. For a guy described by those who know him as a “ham,” it was a natural role.

Mary started out as an elf. One year, Santa’s presence was requested at two different events. To solve the problem of double booking, Pedersen suggested [that] Mrs. Claus could make one of the visits —so she sewed up a costume in a hurry and Mary became Mrs. Santa. People who may not recognize Fred out of costume minus the beard and hat can figure out their identities right away when they see Mary. They receive thank-yours in some unusual places during the year — grocery store lines, hospital stays.

But it’s not the thank-yours that brought them out every year. After a particularly brutal run, with their faces cut by sleet or clothes wet, the two may have wondered why they do it. All they had to do is think about the lit-up faces of the little kids, Fred says, and the question of “retirement” went away. Kids like 9-month-old Joseph Geier, who is brought by mom Jennie to see Santa for the first time. Or 3-year-old Lincoln Lopez and 2-year-old K.I., who brought Santa a letter and cookies. The two made a special trip to their grandparents on the Key Pen just to see Santa. “They are from the city and never see something like this,” grandpa says.

Santa receives many letters and cookies during his stops, along with wish lists, cards and small gifts. On their final night, with a full moon lighting the sky, they also get greeted by tears: An adult couple in Taylor Bay Estates who put on an incredible light display give them hugs for one last year.

From one father, they hear, “We really love you guys coming around.” From three teen-age boys, “We’ve been running all around Palmer Lake looking for you.” From a man near toward the end of the night, “Have fun!” “We do,” Fred replies.

And that’s how the two former firefighters describe their 30-year affair with the Key Peninsula’s Christmas tradition: fun. It’s the same word they use to describe their new adventure, moving later this year to Hawaii, where they are building a new home. Fred, a volunteer who became the KP fire district’s first paid firefighter (long retired), grew up on Herron Road and has lived here his entire life. Mary, who was also a longtime volunteer firefighter and has worked as a dispatcher (with a dispatch phone in her house), is a longtime resident. An extended family, from Fred’s brothers to the couple’s children, will stay behind on the KP and nearby areas, a guarantee the Ramsdells will visit often.

The two are very excited about their new adventure — as evidenced perhaps by the lighted palm trees that have been part of their outdoor holiday décor the last three years. “I look forward to planting my banana trees,” Fred says, while Mary calls their move “the opening of another door.”

What will they miss the most? “The joy and the kids’ faces,” Fred says.

They, too will be greatly missed by the Key Peninsula’s young and old who have counted on their hugs and cheer. Santa Ramsdell and his missus’ big shoes will be pretty hard to fill.

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