By Meghan Keely
Herald Staff Writer
WEST MIDDLESEX —
’Twas the week before Christmas, when all through the fire station, the Santas were preparing to surprise the children during their Christmas vacation.
For more than 35 years, the West Middlesex Santas have been bringing tidings of comfort and joy to the children and families of the borough. On Dec. 23, a Santa surprises the children of West Middlesex by visiting their home, bearing with them candy and cheer.
West Middlesex resident Norm Keiser, 73, started the program in 1976 and was the only Santa Claus that year.
“I was a policeman at the time. I mentioned to the mayor, Fred Webster, that I had a Santa suit,” Keiser said. “I asked if I bought popcorn balls if he would drive me around to the houses of all the borough kids. That’s how this whole thing started, years ago.”
The next year, six Santas hit the town to make sure they visited all the children in West Middlesex.
“The borough council suggested I start a Santa committee and begin to do the event every year,” Keiser said. “It takes a lot of work but all the Santas have a great time. Seeing the child’s face, and that look of excitement – that is the reason we do it.”
Keiser said over the years the Christmas spirit has remained in the kids and that essence is what keeps the program alive.
Gary Salatino, 58, of West Middlesex has been one of the borough’s famous Santas for 25 years.
Salantino, also known as “singing Santa,” asks the children and families at each one of his stops to sing “Jingle Bells.”
“I love the kids and they think you are the true-blue thing; it brings a smile to their faces,” Salatino said. “The kids I went to visit as Santa 25 years ago are grown and I am now visiting their children as Santa.”
“I’ve gone to houses and grandparents or parents have asked me if I remember them from when they sat on my lap 30-some years ago,” Keiser said. “I grew up in Sharpsville and when I was a kid they had a Santa that came to visit. I wanted to carry on that tradition here in West Middlesex. Now, of course, back in my day the Santas were only handing out stale popcorn balls.”
Keiser said the borough has had well over 20 Santas in the last 37 years.
“Some have passed away, some got too old, some are still helping and we have a couple newer Santas as well,” Keiser said. “The one thing that remains the same is the passion of this community to bring Christmas spirit and do something great for the kids.”
Ed Derr II, 45, of West Middlesex is one of the newer additions to the Santas group.
“Norm asked me a few years ago and I said I’d love to,” Derr said. “It nice to see how special these kids feel that Santa came to see them. The one year a little girl – she was maybe 2 or 3 – opened her door and just ran to hug me. She held on so hard and was really excited. I was probably there for over a half hour just talking to her. That excitement is why I do this.”
The borough’s Christmas tradition has become an institution in the households of some local residents.
“My family has been involved in the Santa event for four generations,” said Charlotte Webster, committee member. “My grandmother was a member of the committee; my father, Mayor Webster, started the program with Norm; my mother helped with the organization of the committee; my brother is a driver for the Santas; my niece and nephews have been drivers, elves and Santas; and I have been helping for 37 years.”
Although Keiser hasn’t gone out as Santa in several years, he still keeps the program going. This year four Santas and four elves will make the trek to 30-some homes in the borough. The Santas include Salatino, Derr, Ed Pikna and Tim McConnell. The elves are Nichol Kolbrich, Myrisa Donaldson, Clarrissa Richmond and Charle Green.
Borough residents and businesses donate money to the committee in order to keep the tradition alive.
“We are very grateful for all of the support through out the years,” Keiser said. “The committee is made up of anyone in the area who wants to come and help. Some of these guys are here every year and make this event possible.”