"Camelback Santa" returns this year with his red attire, white beard and a face mask, maintaining his tradition of carrying a Christmas tree to the top of Camelback Mountain — a tradition he delegated to his helpers last year in order to keep the community safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Saturday and again on Christmas Day, John Cressey, also known as Camelback Santa, will take the 1.4-mile hike to place a Christmas tree at the top of the mountain. He will also be there every weekend from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. until Christmas to meet again with old friends.
"Rudolph and the reindeer don't like to come to the warm weather this time of the year, so I have to hike up the mountain myself with a special delivery in my sleigh," Cressey said to The Arizona Republic. "It's not easy, but it's fun to do."
This year, much like last, the tradition continues to honor the heroes who have fought the COVID-19 pandemic on the front line for the past 20 months.
"We're dedicating the tree this year to first responders and health care professionals," Cressey said. "I appreciate their service and their heroism."
Camelback Santa and his helpers are also organizing a new fundraiser for St. Mary's Food Bank. He said this year they hope to reach the $10,000 mark.
Every Saturday and Sunday until Christmas, Santa's helpers will bring up the tree at 6 a.m. and take it down just before sunset to comply with guidelines from the Phoenix Parks and Recreation Department, Cressey said.
Last year, volunteers helped take up the tree to the peak every day. Cressey helped occasionally, but he saved his Santa costume in his drawer.
This year, the costume returns to rescue the holiday tradition, though Cressey said he will add a face mask to his attire to continue keeping the community safe.
"I don't wanna cause other people any form of harm and, you know, I wanna protect myself as well since I'm an old guy, as Santa Claus is," he said.
However, he is willing to give a hug, share a high five and take pictures with everyone who comes to see the tree.
He also plans to carry on the tradition of handing out candy canes as he takes the tree up the trail. He typically hands out about 700 candy canes a day, he said. On Christmas, he can give away up to 2,000.
Every year, he hands out a total of 6,000 candy canes on average, and he said he hopes to reach that goal once again this year.
Cressey said the community has been expecting his classic appearance as Santa and that he's expecting the typical 50-people lines that used to show up every year.
"I am pleased to announce that Santa has survived the pandemic so far," Cressey said. "I'm happy to see old friends that I only see once a year in Camelback."
People can donate to St. Mary's Food Bank at the Camelback Santa donation page at https://fundraise.stmarysfoodbank.org/fundraiser/3620915.
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: 'Camelback Santa' returns to mountain top in Phoenix for holidays