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Santa’s Back: The City of Murrieta Revives Neighborhood Santa Stops

Santa holding a box with red ribbon

More than 30 years ago, a council member for the new City of Murrieta decided the city needed to start some traditions. Something the city could be known for. Something for all the young families moving to the area… a family tradition.

So, thanks to the vision of council member Jack van Haaster and Murrieta Mayor and Fire Captain Jerry Allen, the tradition of neighborhood Santa Stops was born. The Santa Stops prospered for nearly 30 years until Covid brought it to a halt in 2020. Happily, the Murrieta City Council has opted to resurrect the event. This December, you can look forward to visiting with Santa in your neighborhood once again.

In 1991 the population of Murrieta was a mere 19,000 folks (honest!), and Jack or Jerry could traverse every street in town in one or two nights on the back of the 1923 Seagraves fire truck that ran intermittently and smoked excessively. But by 2000, the city had grown to nearly 52,000 folks and covering the city with one Jolly Old Elf took several nights and became an exhausting pilgrimage. So the city solicited the assistance of Santa wanna-bes and the tradition became more like what we currently see. Today, our city numbers some 113,000+ residents and there are now three sleighs, each bringing Santa and a few jolly elves and carolers to neighborhoods over the course of a couple weeks in December.

The last time the event happened, there were more than 200 stops and, instead of a few hundred children total, there might have been a hundred or more at each stop. Thousands of children and families got together, thousands of candy canes were handed out, and thousands of pounds of food items and toys were collected to distribute to even more needy families. Murrieta has always been connected by community; it’s more than just a slogan. But as you might imagine, an event of this scale requires a lot of planning and logistics and can consume a lot of employee hours. As the city grew and the event expanded, the demand on city staff and budget grew exponentially.

The event was cancelled in 2020 along with most things involving people or fun. 2021 was still iffy, but by 2022 the city was once again exploring an alternative Santa experience for the community. A Facebook group, “Bring Back Murrieta Santa Stops,’’ collected signatures from residents hoping to bring back the tradition and, with the support of council member Ron Holiday, were able to do just that. It was a 3/2 vote as some council members voiced concerns about cost and personnel time, but volunteers have stepped up to assist the city with the planning and execution of the event. Hope that helps.

In full disclosure, I have been doing this event for 17 or 18 years. This year I will bring the old red suit out of mothballs (do people still do that?), polish up the old boots (Santa prefers cowboy boots, I’m told), and hit the wintery streets of Murrieta. For years, John Hunneman and I traveled the streets by sleigh, and on the occasion when we crossed paths, were frequently confused as to which one of us was the real deal. I’m hoping John brings his suit out of retirement again this year to delight his fans.

Over the years we’ve seen and heard a lot from our young friends. We’ve seen kids we met go on to become parents and bring their kids to see Santa. We’ve seen the magic in a child’s eyes, abject fear in others. The crying Santa picture is a rite of passage. We’ve seen the trajectory of toy demands over the years and you could write a whole book about that, charting “I wants” from the latest and most expensive high tech gadgetry, to the more traditional dolls and bikes and baseball mitts and books. Each year a little different, each year about the same.

And finally, there are those that tug at your heart, those who have a different grasp of the meaning of the season, perhaps making a request to a power higher than Santa. “I want my Grandma to be well agai; I want my Daddy home from Iraq; I want Mommy not to have cancer.” Those and a hundred variations. It never gets easier. But it’s part of the magic of the event and of the season.

I come home from sleigh riding around Murrieta each night and I am exhilarated. Also exhausted. I mean, having a few hundred assorted size waifs bouncing on your lap and tugging your beard takes its toll, let’s be honest. But for that moment in time, you are the center of their universe, the wonder, the believing, the magic. And it works both ways. There is magic and renewal in the eyes of those youngsters and I’m looking forward to it again this year.

So if you see a very jolly old elf in cowboy boots, just know there’s magic going on!

Thanks to the City of Murrieta for bringing ole Santy back to the streets of Murrieta.

Written by Gene Wunderlich, Sr. Staff Writer

Prior to his retirement in 2021, Wunderlich served on a number of local non-profits and boards. He spent the past decade as a legislative advocate for the housing and real estate industries as well as a coalition of local Chambers of Commerce advocating on behalf of small and local businesses.

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