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TOWNSEND — Santa Claus will make 400 personal appearances throughout Townsend on Christmas Eve, thanks to the volunteers with Townsend’s Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6538.

The VFW has sent out Santas with gifts for local children for more than 30 years, said Betty Mae Tenney, president of the VFW Ladies Auxiliary.

“When we first started, we had two to three Santas and they would just run around from house to house,” she said.

Last year, the VFW sent out nine Santas to 386 children in town. Tenney expects to hand out at least 400 gifts this year.

Parents bring wrapped gifts to the VFW post at the end of November and sign their children up for the visit. Tenney then sends out the Santas on Christmas Eve, usually with a driver and sometimes a helper to deliver the gifts.

The Santas let the children sit on their laps, then give them their gift and a candy cane.

While the parents must buy the gift, Tenney and the volunteers do not charge for the service. She wants to make sure every child in Townsend who believes in Santa gets a chance to meet him.

“No matter whether you can afford it, Santa can come to your house,” she said. “We don’t want people to have to pay for it.”

Bill Roche, 70, and his son, James Roche, 40, are both former VFW Santas. Bill Roche stopped donning the red hat and beard a few years ago when the evening got to be too much.

“It got too stressful for me,” he said.

Between the heavy costume and getting in and out of hot cars and heated homes, the long Christmas Eve was taking a toll on his health.

“I thought, ‘It literally could kill me,'” Bill Roche said.

James Roche stopped taking part in the Santa night when he moved out of town. He now wishes there were a similar program in his new community for his five children.

The long night begins around 3 p.m. at the VFW function hall on Main Street where the Santas, their helpers and drivers meet to get ready.

“You get dressed at the last minute and scramble for makeup,” Bill Roche said.

Tenney will have her list ready for the Santas. Tenney puts in about 100 hours every year organizing the lists of children by street and coordinating the times the families will be available for the visits.

Tenney will have her list ready for the Santas. Tenney puts in about 100 hours every year organizing the lists of children by street and coordinating the times the families will be available for the visits.

Tenney likes to plan things down to the minute, leaving about five minutes per child in the home for each visit. Last minute location and time changes do happen, and Tenney does her best to make accommodations.

“I do it, but it’s a pain in the tush,” she said.

The Santas go out between 5 and 8 p.m., and Tenney is mindful to keep their routes as separated as possible, to avoid children spotting different looking Santas in the same neighborhood.

“I make sure we don’t have more than one Santa on the same street,” she said.

One year, though, a group of three or four Santas ran routes in the Timberlee Park subdivision from a camper van.

Parents supply the Santas with inside information, like all the children’s names, names of pets and even the names of baby brothers or sisters not yet born, Tenney said.

When parents are expecting another baby, Tenney will ask for the name and sex of the new baby so Santa can show his bonafides.

“When the Santa comes in knowing the names of the baby brother or sister, that’s when the children know it’s the real Santa,” Tenney said.

Older pets can be tricky, Tenney said.

“They need to call us if the pet dies before we get there,” Tenney said.

James Roche remembers getting drilled by his driver on all the names and information he needed for each house. He loved being able to show off his Santa prowess to children on the edge of not believing in Santa.

“You can see a change in their faces when you have that information,” he said.

But there are obstacles to being a Santa, according to Tenney.

“You never know what you’re getting into,” she said.

One house could be a young couple with one child, or a party with a dozen children and 30 adults.

Bill Roche still remembers his first years as a Santa, when he entered the warm houses and tried to read the names of the children off the gifts. “You walk into this hot and steamy house with all those people, and the first thing that would happen is your glasses fog up,” he said.

There was also one 6-year-old girl who was just not buying the idea that Bill Roche was the authentic Santa Claus.

The girl believed Roche was her uncle dressed up as Santa.

“She was really nasty to me,” he said. “I was thinking, ‘This little girl deserves coal.'”

The girl’s uncle unexpectedly stopped by the house during Roche’s visit, stunning the girl. In an moment she went from unbelieving to total awe, he said.

“She just starts screaming, ‘Santa!’ ” Roche said.

The Santas are even better than the Post Office, according to Tenney, having never missed a delivery because of rain, sleet, snow or mud.

“So far, they have always managed to go out no matter what the weather was,” she said.

Parents have even met the Santas at the end of long, icy driveways with four-wheel-drive vehicles to get them to the houses.

Tenney can be strict about the times and the gift arrangements, because she needs to keep things moving.

No gift can be more than 26 inches in length, width or height, and the parents are responsible for wrapping it securely.

If a toy’s wrapping paper tears while on route to the house, Tenney won’t repair it.

She will make special arrangements for families, depending on the circumstances. Tenney remembers the year Furby toys were the hot gifts. A divorced father had custody of his daughter on Christmas Eve and wanted Santa to give the girl a Furby, but he was nervous about letting the toy out of his sight and didn’t want to give it to Tenney when it came time to register for the Santa visit.

“I told him, ‘I promise it will not leave my hands until Santa goes out the door,'” she said.

It’s that kind of personal connection that makes the program special, Selectman David Chenelle said.

Chenelle and his family moved into town in the 1990s, while he was still in law school.

“My wife and I had three small children and I was working 14 hours a day,” he said.

Tenney reached out to the Chenelle family and got them signed up for a Santa visit.

“It was a great way to introduce the kids to town,” he said. “It’s a wonderful program.”

When all of the Santas have delivered the last of their gifts, they return to the VFW function hall for a buffet dinner with their families. That was the Roche family Christmas for years. James Roche said the men and women who volunteer for the Santa visits are special people.

“The people who do it are giving up their Christmas Eves for other people’s kids,” he said.