Pleasant Valley residents were not alarmed Saturday morning when they heard fire truck sirens blare and saw lights flashing.
They knew what was coming.
And they were excited.
“We mark this date on the calendar every year,” said Alice Heflin, who stood in her driveway with her daughter, Lori Dixon, and grandchildren, Garrett Dixon, 2, and Allison Dixon, 5.
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The date is so important to their family that Lori Dixon said she takes the day off from work every year.
What makes this Saturday special is the arrival of Santa Claus, who trades in his sleigh for a fire truck and travels through Pleasant Valley and Glenaire delivering bags of candy to girls and boys eagerly awaiting his arrival.
The Dixon children were his first stop that morning as the fire truck headed west on Pleasant Valley Road with firefighters Shane Mitchell as Santa’s driver and Beth Happy and Gabriel Monroy as his helpers.
Heflin said they’ve anticipated Santa’s annual arrival in each of the last 12 years.
“The kids look forward to this,” she said.
Santa’s visit has been a tradition for about 50 years, according to Fire Chief Robert Stinson. Santa and his helpers distribute some 550 bags of candy and cover three square miles of neighborhoods in Pleasant Valley and Glenaire.
Dylan Shockey, 11, has been enjoying the Santa visits since he was 4 years old. This year, he invited his cousins from Liberty, Jon Breigenzer, 9, and Ella Breigenzer, 7, to spend the night Friday so they could see Santa, too.
As Michael and Cammy Shockey watched from the front porch, the three children waited by the curb for the fire truck to come their way.
“It was surprising,” Jon said. “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
The truck stops wherever neighbors are gathered. Santa and one or two of his firefighter helpers greet residents as Santa distributes the bags of candy. Photos are snapped and hugs abound.
At one stop, Santa and helpers were on the receiving end of the giving as Layton and Shelley Strong presented them with two tins of popcorn and other goodies.
“We do this every year,” Layton Strong, 46, said. “It’s our way of giving back to them because they do so much for our community.”
Saturday’s weather was mild, but there have been years when temperatures have been more like those at the North Pole, recalled Travis Wessel, assistant chief of emergency medical services.
“Last year, the weather was in the single digits,” he said. “But we always go out — rain, sleet or snow.”
The joy on the faces of the children makes it all worthwhile.
“We see the kids’ faces light up,” said firefighter Kolby Hedges. “Even one kid is enough.”
Full-time fire and emergency medical services are provided by city employees and volunteers. The event is sponsored by the local firefighters association.
Wessel and Stinson are among those who have played the starring role for the day. This year’s Jolly Old Elf, Grant Venable, made a special stop on the route for a photo.
His wife, Rachel Venable, brought their 10-week-old daughter Vivien out to have a photo taken with Santa.
In addition to the holiday cheer the event creates, Rachel Venable said, she believes it serves another purpose as well: “The more you can get kids used to firefighters and fire trucks and not be afraid of them, the better.”