Santa visits rural Alaska villages

A team of huskies pulled Santa and a sled full of toys away from a C-123 plane at Savoonga, on St. Lawrence Island, in 1963. Frost built up on the driver’s parka on that minus 20-degree temperature day.
A team of huskies pulled Santa and a sled full of toys away from a C-123 plane at Savoonga, on St. Lawrence Island, in 1963. Frost built up on the driver’s parka on that minus 20-degree temperature day.

Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas! I hope you all had a marvelous Christmas with family and friends. Thought you might enjoy this short note about Operation Santa Claus, which began in 1956.

Alaska’s Air National Guard received a request from St. Mary’s Mission for toys for its children that year. Spring floods meant a dismal fishing season, then a drought pretty much eliminated any successful hunt for game. The villagers had to spend their money to ship food into the village, so they had no money to buy gifts for the children.

The Guardsmen decided to help bring joy to the little ones. They collected new and used toys from folks in Anchorage to take to the little village, located 450 air miles west-northwest of Anchorage.

St. Mary’s, which began as a supply depot and winter headquarters for the Northern Commercial Company in 1899, was named after the Andrea family settled on the Yukon River and built a Russian Orthodox Church there. A mission school soon followed. Villagers moved their settlement to higher ground in 1948. They used lumber and other materials from an abandoned gold rush hotel to build a new mission and several homes.

Loaded with gifts for the children, the first Operation Santa Claus took off from Anchorage in a C-123J Provider aircraft. The Yup’ik people of St. Mary’s warmly greeted Old Saint Nick and the airmen who accompanied him.

Operation Santa Claus turned into a joint venture between the U.S. Air and Army National Guard. Santa, who now flies in a C-130 Hercules, brings toys, clothing, books, school supplies, fresh fruit and sundaes to youngsters and elders in communities across the state.

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