Every child knows Santa Claus is in charge at the North Pole. It turns out he’s also in charge of his own parades.
At Tacoma’s Sixth Avenue Santa Parade, “Santa” is Al Switzer, a 59-year-old fix-it man. Switzer organizes the annual event, the third iteration of which occurred late Sunday.
“When I put this together (every year), I start being Santa Claus,” Switzer said.
Sunday’s parade began at Jason Lee Middle School, proceeded along Sixth Avenue and ended at Cedar Street.
“I wanted to do it here at home, on Sixth Avenue,” Switzer said. By day he repairs lawn mowers and other small engines at his shop at Sixth and Union avenues.
When he first approached the Sixth Avenue Business District with the idea in 2014, he went dressed as Santa.
He wears the outfit whenever he visits a group to garner support. Even at Coast Guard offices. They brought a boat to the parade Sunday.
Switzer doesn’t make money on the event.
“This parade is for the kids and the families,” he said.
He has one goal when he plays Santa: to spread Christmas joy.
“That’s what I’m hoping this parade will do,” he said.
BEHIND THE BEARD
Switzer’s long hair and white beard are real. He doesn’t need to pad his figure with pillows. So it comes as a small shock that he’s been playing St. Nick since the age of 25.
It happened naturally. He was raised in a Santa-loving Tacoma home.
“My mom had over 2,500 figurines of Santa,” he said.
Though the lines that separate Santa and Switzer have blurred over the years, it wasn’t always the passion it is now.
“At first it was because I needed work during the winter,” he said. He started his career doing parties at the homes of friends.
“Then I started charging $35 to go someplace, and I started having so much fun with it, just with the wig and the beard.”
Eventually he began to grow out his hair and beard.
“And my friends who knew me when I had a military high-and-tight and just the mustache, they’re thinking I’m nuts, I’m crazy,” he said.
Today, he pays a hairdresser $150 to bleach his brown hair.
The Santa work fits in nicely with his lawn mower repair work. When one job slows down, the other picks up. Sometimes they intersect.
About 13 years ago, Switzer got involved working on grounds equipment used at Cheney Stadium. That led to working on equipment for the Mariners baseball team.
Members of the Mariners grounds crew served as elves in Sunday’s parade, passing out baseball cards. The organization is a donor to the parade.
For the past 15 years, Switzer has played Santa at The Old Cannery furniture store in Sumner. What used to be 15 minute-long lines are now two- to four-hour-long lines at the store.
“They’ve got their lounge chairs and books and breakfast,” he said of visitors.
Though the days between Thanksgiving and Christmas are naturally his busiest, Switzer appears year-round as Santa. By November, he made over 30 appearances in his 22 Santa outfits. The outfits consist of pants, vests and jackets. They are style, color and pattern coordinated.
“I can’t have (different colors of red) when I put them together,” he said. He has a seamstress who works exclusively on his outfits.
Something changes when he puts on the suit, Switzer said. Not just for him, but the people he meets.
A 106-year old woman in a rehab facility who hadn’t spoken in months began talking when she saw him, he said.
At Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital, children momentarily forget they are in pain when they see him. Sometimes children will make requests that break his heart. He cries at the memories.
“You can see they’re not feeling real good or they’re sad and they ask you, ‘I want my daddy back.’ You can’t lose it,” he said.
He’s careful not to make promises that can’t be kept, no matter how much a child wants something. Sometimes the encounters make him laugh. Even the ones that don’t happen while he’s wearing the red suit.
He was shopping at Safeway recently, dressed in his repair shop work clothes. He heard a boy excitedly speaking to his father.
“I heard this, ‘Dad, I know it’s him. I know it’s him,’ ” he said.
The boy was convinced he had spotted Santa out of uniform.
Switzer handed the boy his card, which features a color picture of Switzer as Santa.
“ ‘I told you Dad, I told you,’ ” Switzer said the boy told his father as the pair walked away.