'Twas the Night

Dan Hazelton turns into Santa each year



Dan Hazelton has been listening to children's wishes as Santa for 34 years.

Photo by John Hession

As a child, Dan Hazelton's favorite part of Christmas was seeing Santa. Not unusual for a child, but most don't become a Santa as Dan did when he was 17. And he's been doing it ever since. "I took a few years off when my daughters were little, so that makes 34 years I've been playing Santa," he says.

He does it in Orange, a town of just over 300 people. Each year they gather at what they call the Town House for an old-fashioned Christmas party - handmade gifts for children, carol singing, a potluck supper, pennies and lollipops in a piñata, a book written especially for the party, a town song sung in candlelight and, of course, a visit by Santa.

When the kids are taking turns at the piñata, Dan - who in real life works as a manager at the Lebanon Co-op Foodstore and serves as Town Moderator (and has for 25 years!) - slips away to don his Santa suit and comes back with the gifts for the children. "The gifts are all handmade, with care," he says. "It's a step back to a simpler time, if only for a few hours, when Christmas wasn't so commercial." Dan is shown here with 6-year-old Zoe Barrett.

How did the party get started?
A neighbor named Mary Rickson decided that the town needed to have a get-together other than town meeting for folks to spend time together. She rounded up a few interested people including Gary Hamel, Marylin Johnson, Anita Garland and myself to make it happen. She made all of the stuffed toys and did most of the cooking. Gary made the piñata, and I borrowed a Santa suit. I knew we needed to have Santa there. It was a huge success.

What's your favorite memory?
There are so many, but I just love the look of excitement and wonder on the little ones faces when Santa walks into the room. There was one year we had to cancel because of a bad storm. A few days later Gary and myself (in full costume) drove around town in my truck and hand delivered the gifts to every child.

What do the kids ask for?
Well, I always get the usual latest toy or hi-tech video game request, but surprisingly most little girls still ask for dolls, and quite a few boys still ask for sleds. A lot of kids don't ask for anything and just ask me to pick something out.

Do your children go?
My girls are in their 20s now but went every year right up until they went to college.

Are you surprised more towns don't have parties like the one in Orange?
I am, but I think it's much harder to keep the old-fashioned close-knit feeling as towns have gotten larger. I feel fortunate to live in such a small community.

Each year the kids get a toy and a book?
Yes, all handmade. Gary Hamel has continued this tradition. He organized a group to write a new story each year using animal characters based on past and present citizens involving some sort of adventure. The stuffed animals are based on characters in the book.

What kind of turnout do you get?
It has varied through the years but it can range between 35-70 people including kids and adults.

The town has a special song that's sung in candlelight to end the Christmas celebration ... This is a very old song that was a favorite of Mary Rickson. It's called "One Little Candle" and we have sung it every year since the mid-1970s when the party began.

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