Santa Claus is coming to town. Actually, he's already here. It's a little known fact that for much of the year Santa resides not at the North Pole but in North Spokane, where he lives disguised as the unassuming retiree, Elmer Smoak. Friends in the know just call him Santa Elmer.
As you can imagine, Santa Elmer is a pretty busy guy during the holidays, but he makes a point of spending a good chunk of time right here in downtown Spokane. While he sometimes has helpers fill in for him when he has to take a quick trip back to his workshop, Santa Elmer himself will lead the way at the community Tree Lighting and Reindeer March on Friday afternoon. Plus, he'll be on hand in the atrium of River Park Square to listen to the holiday wishes of children of all ages and sit for photographs every Friday, Saturday and Sunday from now through Christmas. Thanks to his helpers, children can visit Santa at River Park Square seven days a week through Christmas Eve. (Monday-Friday, 11 am to 7 pm; Saturday, 10 am-6 pm; Sunday, noon-5 pm.)
Visiting Santa is not just for the youngsters in the family, he says. "There's no age limit on Santa.
"One little girl came in, and she was just cute as a bug's ear," he says. "She wanted to sit on my lap, even though I have a chair right beside me for some of the bigger kids. I said to her, 'Now there are certain things that Santa doesn't ask, and one of those is just how old a little girl is.' She said, 'Well, Santa, I'm 87.' "
Santa had such a good time visiting with this "little girl" that he forgot to ask what she wanted. Fortunately, she came back again the next year.
"Santa learns who he can tease, you know," he says. "So I asked what she wanted for Christmas. I said, 'How about a boyfriend?' She thought about it, and then said, 'Well, okay, but don't get me one that's too frisky.' "
Over the years, Santa Elmer has amassed a great collection of stories. He says the kids' gift requests change from year to year, but there are always mainstays like Barbie.
One wish that's hard for him is for a little brother or sister. "That's the toughest question," he laughs. "And some of the kids will ask about things happening in the world. These kids ask questions that I have to stop and think about."
Even when the questions are hard, Santa's ready. "I just do my best to make them feel good," he says. "I try to make everyone happy. That's what Christmas is all about."