There’s a twinkle in his blue eyes and a gentleness in his voice that belies his 85 years. But those very qualities make Sanford “Sandy” Elken the perfect Santa Claus.
Elken, who has lived in Minter since 1998, has been playing the jolly old elf for nearly six decades.
It all began back in the early 1950s when he was assigned to be a photographer during his stint in the Army.
That led to a civilian job as a professional photographer taking photos of kids as they visited Santa at big department stores.
“The company I worked for had me being the official photographer for Frederick & Nelson in Seattle,” Elken said. “Then they sent me to Spokane to do the same thing.”
As it happened, the photography studio always furnished the beards and wigs for the department store Santas, while the stores provided the suits.
It was in Spokane, at the end of a particularly challenging day of working with a particularly challenging Santa, that Elken acquired a Santa suit of his own.
“I traded a beard and wig for a Santa suit and when I got back home, I started playing Santa for my friends’ kids in Seattle,” he recalled.
That was in 1954. He’s been playing Santa ever since and does it for the pure joy of seeing kids smile.
“I love kids and I never had any of my own so that’s why I do this. To this day, when I see a kid, I just want to make them smile,” he said, gazing up through his natural bushy brows.
Elken doesn’t work for big department stores anymore. Instead, he frequents private events and smaller community stores like Food Market on the Key.
And he never gives a big, boisterous “Ho-Ho-Ho!” because he doesn’t ever want to scare the little ones.
“When I have a kid that’s scared or crying, the first thing I do is get down on the floor at their level and I tell them, ‘Look. Now you’re taller than I am,’ and they usually calm down right away. And I just talk gentle to them,” he said with a grin.
And when a kid doesn’t know what to say when Santa asks what he or she wants for Christmas, Elken has a trick for that, too: “I just say, ‘Oh I bet I know what you want. I’m going to bring you some surprises.’ That way they’re looking forward to Christmas Eve, no matter what their economic status might be,” he said.
Nita Garnier, owner of the Yankee Clipper in Key Center, has known Elken for more than five years.
“I’ve always thought he’d make the perfect Santa,” she said. “He’s such a personable, caring man and he has the most beautiful blue eyes. And he always has a joke and likes to make people laugh. And you can tell that the kids just love him.”
Elken can be hired for private functions, including family gatherings, right up until 3 p.m. on Christmas Eve. That night he makes an annual visit to the home of a specific family. It’s a tradition that’s been going on for more than 40 years, he said.
Since his very first Santa appearance, Elken has donated all the money he’s made to the Washington State Elks Therapy Program for Children. The money pays for therapy for children who have developmental or medical problems and whose parents can’t afford professional care.
“I’ve personally seen how they help those kids and it’s like a miracle,” he said.
To hire Santa (aka Sandy Elken) for a personal appearance, contact him at his special North Pole number, (253) 851-0271.
Santa will be at Food Market at Key Center Dec. 14 from 11 to 3 p.m. He’ll make an appearance at Food Market at Lake Kathryn Dec. 21, 11 to 3 p.m.
WANT TO HELP SANTA HELP LITTLE KIDS?
For information or to donate to the Washington Elk’s Therapy Program for Children, call (253) 472-6223 or send monetary donations to P.O. Box 110760 Tacoma, WA 98411. For information, visit waelks.net/therapyprogram.