A tradition played out in the Willow Wood subdivision of Palatine this year, and not even most neighbors living in the area realized how far back it stretched. Santa and his elves made house calls throughout the neighborhood, visiting some 20 homes and more than 50 children.
Turns out, this was a milestone year.
According to Amy Henning of Palatine, president of the Willow Wood Neighborhood Association, Santa has been making visits like these to the homes of Willow Wood children for 45 years. The tradition started in 1968, just four years after the first homes were built in the subdivision located southwest of Palatine High School.
"It was the Willow Wood Civic Association back then, but it was pretty active," Henning says. "Within a few years of families moving in, they started to organize activities, like the family picnic, an Easter egg hunt, Halloween parade and Santa's visit.
"It's still a selling point when people move into the neighborhood," Henning says. "They're always amazed at how active the neighborhood is."
Jim and Joan Thomas of Palatine play a key role in keeping the tradition alive. Joan Thomas takes calls from families wanting Santa to visit. She takes down the names and ages of their children, as well as their schools. The better for Santa to connect with each child, she says.
"It just helps if Santa knows their name," says Thomas, a preschool teacher at St. James School in Arlington Heights. "And if he asks something about their school -- you wouldn't believe how much that makes a difference."
Long before Santa ventures out, Thomas has come up with the list of visits, including drawing up maps and routes. She then recruits junior high school students to serve as elves -- or runners -- who go ahead of Santa, gathering the presents on the front porches of each house and stashing them in his sack.
Most years, Thomas has more than two dozen homes on her list and three men from the neighborhood who volunteer to be jolly old St. Nick, including her husband.
"It's just a hoot," Jim Thomas says. "I get such a kick out of doing it."
This year was somewhat bittersweet, however.
Erwin Walz of Palatine, who has been donning his red suit for nearly 30 years, was sidelined with a strained knee, but he hopes to be back next year. "Just the look in the children's eyes," Walz says, "makes it all worthwhile."
What's more, the longest serving of the three Santas, Bob Regal of Palatine, died days before this year's home visits.
"Although Bob's children were grown, he felt it imperative to maintain the quiet, tight-knit culture that has been the mainstay of Willow Wood for so many years," Penning said in a note to neighborhood association residents.
"He made lasting memories for so many young children, and even was lucky enough to play Santa for a second generation."
Nonetheless, the tradition continued this year, with Thomas and Paul Zillman of Palatine stepping up to cover Walz and Regal's routes.
"That's what's so neat," Jim Thomas says, "that it's been going on for so long."
Making it a mainstay in the subdivision of nearly 300 homes for a second generation of children continues to drive them. While the youngsters know nothing of the logistics and history behind the visit, this much they know: Santa keeps coming back.