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Column: Where’s Santa? Someone was missing at December Nights in Balboa Park

After two years of drive-thru format, December Nights returned with festive fanfare to Balboa Park Dec. 2 and 3. The holiday hoopla was almost back to normal.

There were crafts, dancers, singers, booths and festive activities. But one traditional Christmas figure was missing from his usual spot on the east side of the Organ Pavilion — Santa Claus.

For years, jolly Old St. Nick was stationed there after the tree lighting during the Friday and Saturday evening celebrations. He greeted a throng of waiting toddlers, tweens, teens and adults who never quite grew up.

The pandemic abruptly ended that tradition in 2020 and 2021 where, to preserve the holiday spirit, the city arranged for festive food trucks to greet drive-by visitors. Santa sat by the Park Boulevard entrance waving to cars as they entered.

White-bearded Bill Swank, who has perfected his belly laugh and put on the red suit nearly every year since 2002, is fearful that the city has become a Christmas Grinch. As with the 2002 name change from Christmas on the Prado to December Nights in the Park, he suspects city officials want to take Santa out of Christmas to avoid playing favorites or ruffling feathers.

Not so, insists Natasha Collura who, as executive director of special events and filming for the city, took the December Nights reins in 2020.

“It was not an intentional change,” she says. The “Living Christmas Tree Story” continues to be presented, and Santa’s life-size lighted sleigh and reindeer still appear to be flying into the air just south of Plaza de Panama, Collura notes.

Plus, exhibitors and museums are free to include the North Pole visitor. The city’s website noted some Santa photo-op locations, including the San Diego Automotive Museum, S.D. Civic Dance Arts on the Casa del Prado patio and Starlight Theater.

The city never has contracted the services of Santa Claus for December Nights, she points out.

Santa’s meet-and-greet was orchestrated largely by the Community Christmas Center committee which, for years, has been the voluntary overseer of Balboa Park’s life-size Nativity scenes and the Gingerbread House that sells refreshments to maintain the Nativity figures.

“Funds and staffing are limited,” Collura said. “We had to cut out some lighting and inflatables. We had to eliminate the extras.” Much of the budgeted expenses go toward less colorful, but necessary items, such as generators and Porta Potties.

To be self-supporting, city event planners are raising income by devoting more space, such as Santa’s former spot east of the organ pavilion, to booth rentals.

To be truthful, it’s actually a bit of a miracle that December Nights is able to continue on such a large scale.

Lori Boucher and her sister, Kim Sullivan, took over the nonprofit Community Christmas Center (CCC) when their father, Paul E. Schmidt, died last January just before his 90th birthday. He had put together a network of volunteers in the late 1970s to maintain the Nativity scenes with their 32 life-size figures, backdrops and lighting and display them each December.

The project involves a lot of organization and work, and the CCC committee members are aging, adds Boucher, 64. She is especially grateful to the Del Cerro Baptist Church. “If the church didn’t put up their tree, there wouldn’t be a tree-lighting ceremony in Balboa Park,” she says. The committee also maintains the lighted sleigh and reindeer display, although city workers set it up each December.

When Swank lost his traditional spot at the Organ Pavilion, Boucher invited him to informally greet the kids in front of the Gingerbread House on Sunday following the festival’s conclusion on Saturday night.

So that is what he did. While it wasn’t publicized and lacked the crowds of December Nights, the pace was less frenetic — and there was parking.

“I’ve always felt bad that kids got rushed through their visits with me during ‘December Nights,’ because the line was always so long. Regardless, I always made a point to talk with every kid to make them feel special,” Swank says.

Some veteran December Nights visitors wondered why Santa was missing, and Boucher invited those who asked her about his whereabouts to return on Sunday afternoon to visit him at the Gingerbread House.

Teacher Christine Kratt, of Del Cerro, is one of Santa’s many fans. She has attended the Balboa Park event since childhood. In 2009, she started bringing her own children there, and it became an annual outing. “It’s been our tradition to go straight to Santa and watch the tree lighting on Friday night,” she says.

“I was disappointed. My kids were disappointed,” she says after learning that Santa was MIA this year. That’s why she returned with them Sunday and wrote a letter thanking Swank for his longtime dedication. She gave it to him with a collage of photos of her kids. “He has been our family’s Santa for years.”

“They can change the name and call it December Nights, but it saddens me to think park organizers aren’t including this tradition,” Kratt says. “I’m a big believer in representing differing faiths and different beliefs, but I don’t see any harm in having Santa here, too.”

Brenda Hamer, a local pediatrician, likewise, has taken her kids to visit Santa at Balboa Park throughout the years. With Santa missing from his usual spot at last weekend’s festival, she declared, “I might never return.”

Lack of money long has plagued Balboa Park, which has a list of infrastructure needs and deferred maintenance that rivals Santa’s gift list. The Burnham Center for Community Advancement recently released an in-depth study, “Preparing for Balboa Park’s Next 100 Years.”

It recommended, in part, a revenue measure to cover deferred maintenance, a city pledge to dedicate some Transient Occupancy Tax revenue to the park, creation of a Balboa Park oversight committee and even establishment of a separate city department to guard this historic resource.

I asked Collura if the city would be open to a private sponsor stepping in to subsidize Santa’s December Nights’ appearance and she responded affirmatively.

The holiday observance in the park started in the 1950s as a simple non-commercial celebration, but times change. Meanwhile, Boucher says she is happy to invite Santa back to the Gingerbread House again next December.

Swank will gladly return. He points out that “Santa doesn’t enter by the chimney. He enters into your heart.”

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