Dawn Smith of Tustin Ranch’s Maricopa neighborhood was enjoying her Monday night with the family’s annual “Elf” Party, which involves donning onesie pajamas and watching Will Ferrell’s renowned Christmas comedy, when she heard police sirens on her street.
In many communities, this would raise concern. But during December, Tustin residents know to grab their cameras and sweaters to meet Santa and Mrs. Claus for the Tustin Police Department’s annual Santa’s Sleigh.
“This is amazing because they do it every year,” Smith said while wearing pink pajamas and a funny elf hat.
Santa – played by Lt. Robert Wright – ho-hoed and bid a Merry Christmas waving to and honking at motorists. He wagged his white-gloved finger at people brandishing their smartphones for a video or photo while stopped at a traffic light.
“No texting while driving!” he said.
Since 1998, the Tustin Police Department has brought a wooden sleigh and reindeer on an illuminated trailer to neighborhoods around the city.
After 13 years as a motor officer, Master Reserve Officer George Vallevieni joined the Community Resources department, now called the Professional Standards Unit.
One of Vallevieni’s first assignments was to develop a holiday program. He then envisioned a trailer outfitted to look like Santa’s sleigh that would visit the city’s children.
Tustin Police Chief Charles Celano typically follows the trailer in a patrol car, but this year decided to bring his wife and sons along for a ride on the trailer. He believed all of his sons were finally old enough to appreciate putting smiles on other kids’ faces.
“If I encourage my officers and my civilian police to go out into the community, I have to practice what I preach and lead by example,” Celano said. “I also love this community.”
Celano recalled hearing one Tustin woman say during a previous year’s sleigh ride, “This is why I moved to Tustin.” He added that it’s probably not just Santa’s Sleigh but all the community events enjoyed by residents.
Some households make an event out of the annual Santa’s Sleigh. One family set up space heaters, tables, chairs, floodlights and a pop-up tent. A young girl even handed out hot chocolate to police officers and volunteers.
Resident Lynn Shaffer also came out to take photos of her son with Santa and catch up with neighbors.
“It just brings out the Christmas spirit in everyone,” Shaffer said. “You get to see new people in the neighborhood that you haven’t seen before.”
Tustin resident Raj Iyer braved the cold to snap a photo of his son Rohan with Santa Claus.
“The kids just love it because they know Santa is coming and the parents love it because they don’t have to go out,” Iyer said. “I think it’s fantastic for the Tustin Police Department to reach out to the community and be a part of the neighborhood.”