Early in his career Wayne Henderson had to learn to be quick on his feet.
One winter morning a young kid in Valleyview asked him a very important question:
“Santa, how come you’re picking up garbage?”
Henderson came up with his answer on the fly.
“‘The garbage man was sick today so I thought I’d help out,’” he remembers telling the child. “He just looked at me, thought it was a good answer, smiled and moved on.”
Though Henderson’s given name might not be on the tip of everyone’s tongue, few in Whitehorse are unfamiliar with his festive moniker.
For the last 25 years Henderson has been known as Garbage Truck Santa.
“It’s been so long I’m even feeling like Santa Claus. Old,” he said.
For the uninitiated, Henderson spends four days every holiday season driving around Whitehorse in a garbage truck covered from bumper to bumper in 2,500 Christmas lights.
With caribou antlers affixed to the front of his truck and a set of bells on a rope outside his window, Henderson travels to schools, daycares and seniors residences spreading Christmas cheer.
The kids don’t know Santa’s coming until he shows up, said Kim Ramsay, the principal at Grey Mountain Primary School. That leads to some happy reactions.
“Just the wide eyes, the smiling faces, ‘Santa!’ They’re just so surprised.”
Inside the suit “I’m a totally different person,” Henderson said, sitting inside Whitehorse Motors last week. “I’m out there trying to make people happy.”
Even taking Santa’s picture for the newspaper can take a bit of extra time. While waiting in the parking lot multiple families stop their cars to say hello.
Santa had a candy cane and a smile ready for everyone.
Henderson’s journey to becoming Santa began 25 years ago when he was working for the city as a garbageman.
Every Thursday a young boy would be waiting outside to see the truck.
“I’d let him use the controls, lift the truck up, push the garbage back.”
Henderson said it dawned on him how much young kids love big trucks.
“I thought, you know what, I’ll go and see what the manager says about me putting on a Santa suit.”
For two years he spent a few days each Christmas, dressed as Santa, picking up garbage along his route. The truck was decorated, but not to the extent you see today. A few lights were draped over the hood and there were some bows, he said.
After that the city agreed to let Henderson skip his route for a few days and just drive the truck around town while still being paid.
Henderson acknowledges Yukoners’ love to complain about city politics but says he never heard anyone speak a bad word about the decision to let him work as Santa on the city’s dime.
Over the years the truck has gotten twinklier and Garbage Truck Santa has gotten even more popular. Henderson estimates he handed out 3,000 candy canes during the four days he worked last week.
During one visit, while going room-to-room at a continuing care facility, he came across a volunteer playing piano for some of the residents and decided to sing jingle bells with the group.
He clearly still loves the job, though things have gotten a little more bureaucratic over the years.
He now has to get a waiver each Christmas to put the lights on his truck. Technically vehicles on the road are only supposed to have red lights.
He’s quick to credit a handful of Whitehorse businesses with helping get Santa ready every year.
The trucks lights are donated by Canadian Tire, while Wykes Your Independent Grocer and Superstore donated the candy canes. Ajax Steel and Industrial Supplies get Santa his white gloves, since he goes through quite a few getting in and out of the truck.
But the folks at Whitehorse Motors may be Santa’s biggest helpers, he said.
It was thanks to them, and the Takhini Trailer Park, that the tradition was able to continue after the city did what some saw as the unthinkable.
It sold Santa’s truck.
The new garbage trucks weren’t able to have to twinkly lights, Whitehorse officials said in 2012.
After a flurry of complaints, city councillors drove a different Santa around that Christmas in a lit-up van instead.
Henderson helped decorate the van but says he wasn’t comfortable donning the red suit.
“It’s always been Garbage Truck Santa.”
In 2013 the event didn’t happen at all.
But then Henderson got a call from Whitehorse Motors’ general manager Tina Woodland.
If there was a garbage truck to be found, would Santa be willing to ride again? she asked.
“I said absolutely. She gave me a call a few weeks later, ‘I found you a garbage truck.’”
The truck gets borrowed from the Takhini Trailer Park each year.
“For me, in a nutshell, it’s really important for us to participate in the community, and I think this is something the whole community can enjoy,” Woodland said.
Staff at Whitehorse Motors often spend their time, energy and money keeping the garbage truck in good working order but Woodland said it’s worth it.
“It’s an investment in our community and it makes us feel good.”
Now that Henderson is not driving a city truck he takes vacation days to make time for his Santa duties.
His son and friends, who were babies when the tradition started, help decorate the truck.
As long as he stays healthy, and the truck stays in working order, he’ll keep doing it, He said.
“It’s something in me. It’s giving back to the city, I guess, back to the people.”
Contact Ashley Joannou at ashleyj@yukon-com