When I was a child growing up in West Mifflin, a blue-collar suburb of Pittsburgh, there were a few consistent holiday rituals. These included: making Advent wreaths at CCD; watching the Charlie Brown Christmas special; and fire truck Santa.
Each year the local volunteer fire department would drive around the neighborhoods with Santa on a truck, tossing ‘full sized’ candy to us kiddies. I’m not sure in that era how we knew it was time for this ritual, perhaps the slow wah-wah-wah of the truck siren versus the full-throated wail.
I remember mostly receiving Clark bars (which I <3) and feeling genuinely happy that Santa came to see us. No parade, no photos, no souvenirs for sale. Just a full-sized candy bar promise that Santa was coming, soon.
I have no idea how or why the tradition started, but I did recently learn that it was spearheaded by the volunteer fire department that served our part of West Mifflin (13 acres required 4 departments total – No 3. If you have information on the origins of “Fire Truck Santa” in West Mifflin, please let me know.
I found some wryly amusing clippings detailing the years when Santa couldn’t come to town in 1985 (fighting actual fire) and 1989 (cold weather.) I also found some modern Facebook updates, informing kids that Santa landed at the Allegheny County Airport which is located near #3 to join them for recent cruises, now called ‘Santa Treats.’
Perhaps it is simple nostalgia, but I find it endearing to remember simple memories where the magic was created without lights, mirrors, or a 3 hour wait. West Mifflin is home to Kennywood which has a holiday lights event that is nice, but horrifyingly expensive and focused on artifice. But light shows and magical memory stations are for parents, not so much children. Come to think of it, parents who grew up experiencing the same traditions as I described above. So maybe I’m not onto something?
Bringing Santa to the people in the community instead of using Santa to lure people into commercial spaces seems to be a lost, but perhaps much-needed tradition.
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