The Claus with a Cause - Fort McMurray’s Real Santa
Long before the tale of a magical North Pole setting, filled with elves and giant workshops, there was a man by the name of Saint Nicholas, who we know today as Santa Claus or St. Nick.
He was a real person born in Western Turkey circa 270, a bishop who wore a long red robe with a red hat and travelled by horse to every village. Though there are many variations of the Saint Nicholas legend, one tradition comes from the story of him leaving small bags of gold coins for a man and his three daughters.
To this day, the traditions continue as children leave shoes and stockings out to receive coins. In Fort McMurray, the legend of St. Nick comes to life through the efforts of long-time volunteer Harry Budgell, also known as the Syncrude Santa.
The tall and jolly man comes dressed from head to toe in red velvet with white fur linings, donning a leather belt and satchel with golden bells and keys. Just like the legend, he also delivers special coins to children through a fundraising initiative to buy groceries for elders in Alberta’s most northern community.
Budgell has been wearing the Santa hat since the late ‘90s as a greeter to workers at Syncrude’s main entrance and handing out candy canes during the Christmas season.
In the past seven years, his wife Rose Hurley has joined him. Once she did, their Santa and Mrs. Claus clout unfolded throughout the community and they went from wearing big box store costumes to completely customized attire made from beautiful fabrics with shimmering lace.
“This all started with a couple of Santa visits for my friends before Christmas to hand out gifts. My suit was just a regular suit, nothing special. But as this grew to tradition, I had to upgrade. It kept growing into a couple of weeks, being at four to five houses each day. I have held babies in my earlier years that now have started their own families,” said Budgell.
Several community groups have invited them to their events, including the Northern Lights Health Foundation’s Festival of Trees, the Rotary House Seniors Lodge and the Fort McMurray International Airport, to name a few.
“People have seen us everywhere from the greeting passengers in the YMM airport to shopping at the store as when Mrs. Claus needs something from the store, I get dressed up and shop,” he laughed.
“They have even seen us in Mexico, where we visit a special community that has never seen the real Santa and Mrs. Claus. Customs were nothing but wide-eyes when they looked into my luggage and, all that was in there were candy canes and stuffed bears. I have been in the pilot sets of several planes as when we fly in November or December; I am always in a suit.”
The special Claus couple also started a cause as they’ve been delivering truckloads of groceries to the elders of the Fort Chipewyan community since 2018. The event is tagged as the Fort Chipewyan Ford Mustang 400 Rally as Mrs. Claus takes her mustang down the winter road to get there.
The event started as a small gesture in 2018 after they went for a drive to deliver some gift cards and non-perishable food items and, today, it has grown into a community-wide initiative.
Being from Newfoundland, Budgell said the Fort Chipewyan community was just as welcoming as he remembered from his hometown. The couple fell in love with the experience and vowed to continue helping every year.
“Giving back was something taught to me growing up. If I caught a fish, then the elders in our town had a fish. If they needed wood, they received wood with no questions asked,” he said.
“When we saw how big the town was, those ten bags we brought wasn’t enough to give a bag to every elder, so I designed the card and coins with the help of Billboard Direct and, now, Prime Promo with this year’s coins.”
The event funding comes from the delivery of the Claus Coins, which residents purchase for $15 each. The coins help cover the cost of the food drive. When he comes to homes, he tells the children that they have to stay on Santa’s nice list by listening to his instructions that include tasks like listening to their parents and brushing their teeth.
“The coins are taking off more and more. Hopefully, by next year, they may cover all the cost for this food drive, and maybe more so we can expand on what we put in them.”
Due to COVID-19, Budgell came up with ways to follow the restrictions and protocols with social distancing visits. This year, he’s also doing Zoom greetings to raise funds.
“We are keeping our visits shorter this year, and not inside of the house. We wear masks all the time and use candy cane scented hand sanitizer after each visit and always wearing gloves,” Budgell explained.
As for making spirits this holiday season, Budgell has already safely visited dozens of homes and believes the residents of the Wood Buffalo region will get through this rough spot, just as they have in the past.
“This year is another bump in the road, and we will travel over this bump. It may be rough, but we will get over it if we all work together. Start with the family and help your neighbour. From there, you can help a stranger. Charity is not what you give it’s what you want to do to help one another.”
- Fort McMurray’s real Santa and Mrs. Claus (Harry Budgell and Rose Hurley) at the 2019 Festival of Trees.
- The grocery haul from last year’s Fort Chipewyan Ford Mustang 400 Rally brought over 300 bags of food to elders in the community.
- Santa and Mrs. Claus visit a two-hour-old newborn at the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre. They brought gifts and toys to the hospital on Christmas Eve to patients spending the night.
- Santa shares greetings with his flight pilots before heading to Newfoundland in 2015.
- Santa welcomes skiers at Vista Ridge. Photos supplied