Behind the scenes with Culver’s ‘Santa helpers’ Bringing Kris Kringle to Culver

CULVER — As Culver’s tiny tots once again eagerly await the arrival of that red-suited, jolly old elf this weekend, several not-so-tiny Culverites are preparing to retire the red suits and beards with which they “help” Santa Claus make several local appearances this year, as he has in years past.
To be sure, several Culver men have donned that beloved attire during any given Christmas season, but now as in years past, there are just a few who help Santas make the rounds of civic events, children’s affairs, and many other activities with jolly old Saint Nick on a regular, ongoing basis.
The most visible of these over the past decade-plus has been Culver’s own Ralph Winters, who by Christmas will have brought Santa to Culver’s uptown tree lighting ceremony, REAL Meals Christmas party, and Miller’s Merry Manor nursing home. He’ll also continue a tradition he started a few years ago when coming home from a “gig” helping Santa, with a number of candy canes left over and no place to take them.
“I just whipped into the Monterey bank,” he says. “They were all tickled to see Santa — it was a break in their activities.”
Since then, he’s made it a regular practice on Christmas Eve to facilitate Santa’s making the rounds of Culver’s businesses to distribute candy canes.
“It just seemed like a fun thing to do,” explains Winters. “I’ll get rid of as many as 200 candy canes ... it’s always positive. Parents want their kids’ pictures taken.”
Many in Culver may recall the community’s previous “regular” Santa helper, Charlie Wolf, who assisted Kris Kringle for a number of years.
“You’d see him walking home and think, ‘Gee, that’s neat,’” recalls Winters. “Then Charlie died. (Some 12 to 15 years ago) I went ahead and bought a suit and beard and let it be known I would like to do it.”
Growing up on a Monterey farm, Winters doesn’t recall Santa visiting the Monterey Elementary School (neither does Barbara at Holy Family School, later St. Anne’s). Instead, Winters just “saw a niche” when Wolf passed away, and sought to fill it.
Santa as helped by Winters has a couple of uniquely distinguishing features, most notably the “Lapp Lander” hat he wears, as opposed to the traditional red “pom-pom” hat of most Santas. Winters and wife Barbara picked up the hat some 10 years ago on a visit to Finland.
“It’s the ‘Hat of the Four Winds,’” he explains. “We spent a day in the woods (in Finland) riding a traditional Lapp sled pulled by real reindeer — caribou ... there is a huge manmade cave in Finland that is a Santa Claus Workshop. We spent half a day there one year; (it’s) really elaborate. It is above the Artic Circle.”
The hat, he says, “just seemed a personal touch to the costume.”
With his own real beard (not nearly as white or prolific as the actual Santa’s), twinkling eyes, and a red Santa hat, Winters says he’s been approached by children wanting to meet Santa while just “out and about,” even without officially attired Santa in the vicinity.
He also accentuates his Santa with large sleigh bells he added some years ago. “That puts a sound with the presence,” he ex plains. “People hear you coming when you’re outside or at end of the hall.”
Children ask where Santa’s reindeer are, he says, to which Winters replies the animals can’t fly if there’s no snow, or in the daytime. Instead, Santa has arrived on the scene in Culver fire trucks, or in Winters’ own Jeep, or more recently, his Miata.
He says the endeavor is fulfilling.
“You just feel good. Little kids want to whisper into your ear — it just adds to the pleasure. But probably the most rewarding is the nursing home. Somebody who’s probably just sitting there, staring at the wall — you tell them, ‘Merry Christmas,’ and you can tell how happy they are you could come. That’s really rewarding, the older people moreso than the kids.”
Winters says “it’s just fun to get out and see different people” when he’s facilitating Santa, and he intends to continue “until I get too feeble to do it.
“In the movie, ‘A Miracle on 34th Street,’ they said there was something lacking in your own psyche (if you play Santa),” smiles Winters. “You must do this because you’re not all there. That’s possible, too!”
Another regular, though perhaps not as visible Santa helper in Culver got started around 15 years ago when a local clergyman agreed to buy the necessary accessories and asked him to help out. This Santa helper wishes to remain anonymous, partly as he’s had to scale back his appearances through the years.
Starting as a youth in the 1940s and 50s, this Santa assistant spotted various renditions of the beloved character “in person” not only in Culver but in other nearby communities where work took him.
“Every town had one,” he recalls, adding warm Christmas memories of customers giving him enough Christmas gifts to fill bushel baskets.
This Santa’s aid has brought the man in red to the Culver library, one area church in particular each year, Miller’s Merry Manor, and even as far away as a South Bend nursing home.
“I always enjoy the kids and the singing,” he says, “and try to remember some of the kids’ names from year to year. I just enjoy seeing the look on the kids’ faces. I think they get a lot out of it. I calm down the little kids and tell them, ‘Don’t ask for too many things.’ Last year, many kids only asked for one item!”
This Santa helper, a longtime Culverite, recalls Art Fishburn and others playing the role regularly prior to Wolf’s stint in the role.
Of course, Culver’s many years’ tradition of a free children’s party sponsored by — in varying degrees of involvement depending upon the year — Culver’s Lions Club, fire department, VFW, Tri Kappa, and Kiwanis Club, has included a visit with Santa as it did once again this year. For several years now, members of Culver’s volunteer fire department have taken turns helping Santa arrive in full regalia, often via a grand entrance by fire truck (a tradition going back at least to 1960, according to a Citizen photo from that year, and likely much earlier).
At least during the late 1960s and possibly earlier, and well into the 1970s, Santa had a small “house” on the library lawn near the corner of Main and Washington Streets before the State Exchange Insurance building (and today’s Culver library extension) was erected there, recalls Mike Willhite, whose photo can be seen in a 1968 Citizen sharing his gift wishes with St. Nick. In those years, Santa kept designated hours to hear Christmas requests from area children, and besides the organizations mentioned above, Culver’s Chamber of Commerce and the now-defunct Jaycees usually sponsored his arrival and appearances, and related children’s parties featuring St. Nick around town. This in addition, of course, to assorted appearances at some of Culver’s stores over the years. The announcement of Santa’s arrival is almost unchanged from year to year between the late 1950s and the early 1970s: he always arrived by fire truck (“fire chief David Burns has promised to drive him through town...”), held court for a couple of Saturday morning hours in the “library auditorium” (today’s Center for Culver History), and by the late `60s offered scheduled hours throughout December at his little “house” on the library lawn.
Through the past five years, Santa has held an annual party at St. Mary of the Lake Catholic Church in his more traditional garb as “Saint Nicholas,” a fourth-century bishop from the land today known as Turkey. These parties, as well as appearances at Wesley Preschool and elsewhere, aim to explain the historical origins of the many traditions surrounding the figure of Santa.
Regardless of when or where in Culver, Santa continues to have the same appeal he’s had to generations of children everywhere.
“I think it’s hope,” says Ralph Winters. “Belief in the future. The whole spirit of Santa Claus seems to abound. Everybody’s glad to see me come in.”
Besides all those children’s smiles, Winters sees his role assisting Santa in much the same way other Culver Santa helpers probably have.
“I’ll repeat what Pat Birk said a few years ago: ‘If you want the community to be a nice place, you’re the only one that can do it.’ This is a little bit of public service that doesn’t cost that much money.”
But for children throughout the Culver area, a few moments with Santa are priceless.