People & Places

Marion's Santa and Mrs. Claus have decades of experience bringing holiday cheer

This year's Christmas in the Park event was different, but rewarding.

A young visitor sits next to Santa Claus on Dec. 3, 2009, during Marion's annual Christmas in the Park celebration in Ci
A young visitor sits next to Santa Claus on Dec. 3, 2009, during Marion’s annual Christmas in the Park celebration in City Square Park. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
/

MARION — As holiday seasons come and go, the children of Marion grow up and some have kids of their own, but the city’s Santa and Mrs. Claus have remained the same.

Steve Bartlett and Karry Hodge are two of the Claus family’s biggest helpers, dressing up almost each year since Marion’s Christmas in the Park was created.

Bartlett, a former teacher in the Linn-Mar School District, has been a Santa since 1978 when a Catholic school asked him to stop by.

“I didn’t even have a good looking suit,” he said. “I rented one for $5. Over the years, I’ve gone through many different suits since then.”

Since then, he’s been Santa at Christmas in the Park since its first year in 1992.

“It’s been a tremendous community event,” Bartlett said. “The very first time, Mayor (Vic) Klopfenstein was mayor back then, we lit the Peace Tree. It was only 4 feet tall by the depot. Every year, I have a picture there and I’ve seen it grow, but it got knocked down by the derecho. That tree got to be huge over the years.”

Bartlett said he’s always loved Christmas and the holiday season.

“When I was a kid growing up, I was pretty nervous about Santa,” he said. “When I was in kindergarten, a little girl told me there was no Santa and it ruined Christmas for me. But I’ve studied Santas all around the world and it’s very interesting.”

Hodge, a former paraeducator at Linn-Mar and story time librarian at the Marion Public Library, said she got involved because of her interactions with children.

Bartlett and Hodge have known each other over 30 years because of their work at Linn-Mar.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

“The first couple of years of Christmas in the Park, I still worked at the library so I just did Christmas story time because all the kids knew me,” Hodge said. “But then the next year, I made a costume: the same costume I’ve worn for all these years.”

Being a teacher for many years, Bartlett got to know the names and faces of other teachers in the city, which became helpful for Santa to connect with children.

“I could ask the kids what school they went to and I could name their teachers,” he said. “That’s a big deal to kids.”

“A little fellow would come through and Steve would know their teachers based on the age and school they went to,” Hodge added. “Their eyes would almost pop out of their head. It’s fantastic.”

Bartlett and Hodge both said they know the trends of what kids want for Christmas each year and it’s been interesting to see them change through the decades.

“I always try to know what’s popular, what’s the doll of the year. I need to know,” Hodge said. “Every year, you see those trends. When we first started, Nintendo was just coming out. We laugh about that stuff because we know if it’s a big year for Legos or if it’s a musical year where kids are asking for instruments and things.”

Bartlett said he also enjoys playing a Santa because Santa and Mrs. Claus are supposed to be “neutral people in society.”

“Everyone mostly likes Santa,” he said. “You see everyone come through: the old, the young, the socio-economic divides that are part of our community. You have kids that ask for everything under the sun and you have kids that ask for socks and underwear.”

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

Bartlett said during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, some children asked only for their parents to come home.

“The first time, during Desert Storm, this little girl asked me for her dad to come home from the war. That hits you pretty hard,” he said. “That’s really heart wrenching.”

When the holiday event began in Marion, children could visit Santa and Mrs. Claus in the caboose stationed in City Square Park, but recently they’ve had a small house to sit in as the long line of kids wait to take pictures with the two.

“We never stop seeing kids until the last child is through,” Hodge said. “One thing I love about Steve is he never rushes the kids through. Whether we sat in the cold caboose or now in that little Christmas house, he never rushes them. He makes them feel wonderful.”

Bartlett said Hodge is a great Mrs. Claus as well.

“She feeds off what the kids say,” he said. “If it’s a question I can’t answer, which is a lot, I say Mrs. Claus can answer that. It’s a perfect blend of people in education who know kids well. And some are scared of Santa, so she’s great. She’s tremendous.”

This year, with COVID-19, the traditional Christmas in the Park event adapted into a pandemic parade as Santa and Mrs. Claus hopped on a decorated Marion firetruck and toured neighborhoods, waving to children as they cheered. Traditionally, Santa and Mrs. Claus arrive at the park on a firetruck.

“I’ve probably ridden in the firetruck more than anyone in this town,” Bartlett said. “But this year was two hours in the truck. I saw neighborhoods pulling together, going down those little streets. It was amazing.”

Bartlett and Hodge said they saw families gathered outside, huddled in warm vehicles or around driveway bonfires, playing holiday music.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

“It was really a lot of fun and the firemen were terrific,” Hodge said. “They did a terrific job of decorating the truck.”

“I think we may have reached more families than we ever have,” Bartlett said.

Bartlett said he plans to continue to be a Santa for years to come.

“It keeps me young and it’s a super thing for the community,” he said. “I’ve never been a Santa for hire. I don’t take money. You can’t buy me, but I’ve done events for charity with the money going to the schools. … I know that someday I won’t be able to do it, but I don’t see that day coming quickly.”

Hodge said being a Mrs. Claus is a rewarding role she looks forward to each year.

“It’s the best job I’ve ever had,” she said.

Comments: (319) 398-8255; gage.miskimen@thegazette.com

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.