VALATIE–Signs leading into the village declare that this is the home of the Santa Claus Club, 1st in the Nation. The local tradition of “Santas” visiting village youngsters at their homes on Christmas Eve started over 60 years ago and is still going strong today.
The Santa’s helper I talked to, who goes by the name Joe Pawlik the other 364 days of the year, said that the club has about 30 members. Nine Santa Clauses go out on December 24 to pass out gifts and bring Christmas joy to some 600 kids in the village. Karen Keeler, who grew up in Chatham and is now in her early 30s, remembers “begging my parents to go to my uncle’s house [in Valatie] and wanting to make sure we got there on time to see Santa Claus,” she said.
The Santa Claus club was started in 1946 by Bill Farrell, according to “Valatie: The Forgotten History” by Dominick C. Lizzi. Mr. Lizzi writes that the village has a long history with Santa. “Valatie had a Santa Claus Christmas tradition much earlier than most American communities,” he writes, saying a local baker advertised himself as the “old elf” in 1859.
Mr. Farrell and other returning World War II veterans dressed up as Santa Claus in 1945 to visit a little girl in Niverville who was terminally ill, writes Ms. Lizzi. “The dying girl was in absolute ecstasy at the Santa visit. The men were deeply moved by the girl’s reaction,” he says. As the story goes, that visit inspired the men to start the club.
At 4 p.m., ever since 1946, a parade goes through the streets of the village with “Here Comes Santa Claus” playing and the Valatie Fire Department leading the way. After the parade, Santa visits children in their homes with gifts. The visits are prearranged with parents.
Mr. Pawlik, who didn’t want to give away too many details, says that the group buys the gifts. All the volunteer Santa Clauses have houses they go to, some they have been going to for years. Mr. Pawlik has been participating in the club for 34 years. He says what he likes about it is that it “gives a personal visit to the child.”
He is also continuing a tradition that he experienced. “I remember it as a child in Valatie,” says the village native.
Ms. Keeler says, “It was a big deal as a kid that Santa came to your house.”
Mr. Pawlik says that the group has gotten some publicity in the past, but that new village residents have found out about it through club word of mouth or calls from club members.
Mr. Lizzi writes that the club has been recognized by the state and had broader news coverage. He quotes the Schenectady Gazette from December 25, 1990: “If you are a kid at Christmas, there is no better place to be than Valatie.”