In a tradition as sweet and homespun as Christmas carols played on a dulcimer, Santa Claus made his rounds in this logging town of about 300 Sunday. He forged his way to houses deep to their eaves in snow and brought a gift to every child, senior citizen and person going through hard times.
Yes, there is a Santa Claus, and in Bovill, residents make a special effort to ensure he perseveres.
The people in charge of Christmas in Bovill can trace their Santa at least as far back as 1942. Memory fades then; years run together. In the beginning, Santa made his appearance at the school Christmas play. For about the past three decades, he has gone house to house the Sunday before Christmas.
Santa has been handed down over the generations. June Smith has been in charge of him the past 16 years. She inherited the job from her aunt, Maxine Bogar, who did it for 17 years before that.
On Friday, Smith and six helpers gathered at the community recreation hall built by the Potlatch Corp. On large wooden tables in the pine-paneled building, they set up rows of paper sacks, 200 in all, and filled them with candy, gum, nuts, raisins and several pieces of fruit. This year, the hall was redolent of the aroma of apples.
Smith had driven six hours to Othello and back to pick them up the day before. Neither she nor her helpers are members of a civic organization, a club or a committee. They just do this.
Most of them have children who were visited by Santa. Smith and Stacey Mitchell-Woods grew up here.
“I remember this from when I was a little girl,” says Mitchell-Woods. “I always thought this was the most special thing about Bovill. As an adult, I’ve learned what goes into it. It genuinely is special.”
It certainly is fun for Santa’s helpers, although the affair lacks the polish that, say, Martha Stewart might demand.
As they fill sacks, Smith, Mitchell-Woods, Hope Hobbs, Malissa Bogar, Glenna Shook, Diane Holt and Betty Williamson are fueled by Smith’s homemade Kahlua and by cans of beer cooling in a snowbank outside. There is no real trick other than making sure each bag has one of everything.
“If you come out with one candy bar extra, you’ve got to find out where it belongs,” says Holt. “You don’t just sit down and eat it.” She’s Bovill’s postmaster and keeps Smith apprised of new people moving into town who should be added to her handwritten list.
“Pretty much everyone in town gets a bag,” says Bogar, “unless you’re an adult and healthy.”
Says Smith: “My worst worry is that I’m going to miss some little kid. If I miss an old person, I can come back to them. But if I missed a little kid, it would break my heart.”
Still, she oversees the stuffing of the sacks with elan.
“What candy bar are you doing?” she inquires of Williamson.
“The $100,000 Bar,” Williamson replies.
Smith raises her right hand. In it is a $100,000 Bar.
“You missed one.”
Williamson blanches. “Oh, Lord.”
Smith also keeps a sharp eye throughout the year for potential Santas, for whom she has a special fondness.
“All my Santas have been great,” she says, including the Santa who imbibed a little too freely of Christmas cheer one year, and the Santa who fell off the tailgate of her brother’s pickup when he gunned it up a hill. “There was Santa, lying in the snow ringing his bell.”
And especially the Santa who had one little girl tell him that all she wanted for Christmas was a pair of shoes.
“That bothered Santa all day,” says Smith. “He made his wife go and buy that girl a pair of shoes.”
Sunday morning’s first sun has put a silvery crown on the snowy summit of Abe’s Knob dominating the skyline north of town, visible from the Potlatch Recreation Hall. This year’s incarnation of the jolly old elf, Ron Mael, a sawyer for an area logging contractor, has come to be garbed.
“This is the third time I’ve done it,” he says. “I did it a long time ago when they still had the play up at the school. Criminy sakes, that must have been 37 years ago.”
He will wear the red suit that Smith bought with proceeds from a firewood raffle she held several years ago. For the most part, Bovill’s Santa tradition is generously supported by anonymous donors, she says.
As he gradually transforms from sawyer to Santa, Mael reminisces about a past Santa experience.
“There must have been nine kids in that trailer. They mobbed me.”
Suited up, he, Smith with her list, and Bogar settle onto blankets on the tailgate of a pickup driven by Bogar’s husband, Bruce. The truck is filled with the paper sacks stuffed two nights before. The temperature is a few degrees above zero.
At only the second stop, Santa and his helpers are invited in for a drink. Smith declines. At the third stop, a shivering Malissa Bogar fixes Smith with a baleful stare.
“I’ll tell you what. You turn down the next shot of whiskey, you’re walkin.”’
Every dog in town, it seems, announces Santa’s presence. One house veritably erupts with Rottweilers - luckily, friendly.
Santa’s reception by Bovill’s children is, by turns, eager and shy. One-year-old twins Haley and Mason Dorendorf instantly start a terrified wail when Santa walks in the door.
But if one response characterizes Bovill’s relation to its Santa, it probably is 5-year-old Amanda Hanson’s. She comes to the front porch holding the sack Santa has just given her and calls to her father, Dean Hanson, who stands in the driveway visiting with Santa and Smith.
“Dad! Two apples! Two oranges!”
A small gift makes a big impression. Bovill, under its mantle of snow, may be the perfect image of Christmas, but it is no more immune from travail than any other place. Some of the people getting Christmas sacks this year have lost spouses. Some are fighting cancer. But their town, in the form of a warm holiday tradition, reaches out to them.
Terrified 1-year-olds not with-standing, the homespun Santa swinging his legs from the tailgate of a pickup embodies peace. In paper sacks of candy and fruit, he expresses Bovill’s goodwill. As he has for more than 50 years.
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