For many Tustin residents, it’s not Christmas time until Santa and Mrs. Claus commandeer their reindeer-led sleigh through the neighborhood.
With holiday music filling the air signaling Santa’s imminent arrival, families throughout Tustin once again gathered along local streets this month to greet the Jolly Old Elf as he pulled up, just the way they have for about the past 25 years, when the Tustin Police Department started the tradition. Guided by a police escort, Santa will visit neighborhoods in about 90 percent of the 11-square-mile city over multiple nights.
“We try to hit the whole city because the entire city supports us,” said Officer Mark Sauerwein, who drove the flatback truck that transports the sleigh. “It’s important to the community.”
Once Santa pulls to a stop, children line up to for a chance to sit on his lap, pose for a photo, and get a candy cane.
“I think it’s wonderful,” said Marybelle Garcia, who came to say hi to Santa with her husband, Wesley Sinclair. “My nieces and nephews live in the area too and they look forward to it every year.”
The couple even brought along their eight-month old cat, Harry, to have their picture taken with Santa.
“We have a new baby (Harry) in the house and we had to bring the baby too,” Garcia said. “It’s his first Christmas. Plus, he loves Tustin PD. They keep him safe at home.”
Tustin Police Department even kept Santa’s Sleigh going in 2020 and 2021, during the COVID-19 pandemic, but Santa and Mrs. Claus could only stop and wave without letting kids to get too close. This year, everything was back to normal.
“It’s beautiful for the kids,” said Audie Cintron, who splits her time between Tustin and Hawaii. “That is the most important thing. This is the time we’ve got to be together after what we’ve been through with this pandemic.”
Former Master Reserve Officer George Vallevieni, who retired in 2017, started Santa’s Sleigh when he was asked by a supervisor to develop an outreach program for the city. Vallevieni, who was a skilled craftsman, purchased an old flatbed trailer for $150 and fashioned a wooden sleigh, white picket fence, and seven reindeer. He added garland and Christmas lights and the tradition was born.
“I looked it up earlier this week to see when (Santa) was coming,” said Tamara Anderson, who was outside to greet Santa with her 8-year-old son, Tanner.
Training Officer Michelle Jankowski, who has served as the lead escort in a patrol vehicle for Santa’s Sleigh in each of her 10 years with the Tustin Police Department, said she loves seeing the children’s faces when they see Santa.
“I love engaging with the community,” Jankowski said. “It takes a lot of us from the department to make sure that our community is happy and festive and we are happy to do it. We love the relationship we’ve established with our city.”