Christmas comes to Olalla in style

Christmas is right around the corner, and South Kitsap residents and businesses observe many different traditions to celebrate the season.

Al’s Grocery and Old-Fashioned Butcher Shop is a business that strives to make the holiday bright in a unique way.

Each December on the Sunday before Christmas, employees of Al’s convene at 10 a.m. to begin the festivities — transporting Santa around Olalla to meet area children and their families.

“We’re always on time,” said John Robbecke of Al’s Grocery.

Al’s staff travels with Santa on a tractor (thankfully loaned to the business by Olalla resident Ken Oas) and the group makes 36 miles worth of designated stops in front of houses and on roads in Olalla.

A map of the route of Al’s Christmas tractor is sent home before the event with children from Olalla Elementary School as a way for them to know when Santa will be coming by.

“You don’t have to be from Olalla to enjoy it,” said Robbecke. “Anybody can go and meet Santa, sit on his lap, take pictures. All are welcome.”

The tradition was started 37 years ago by John’s father Al Robbecke as an alternative to making the trek to the Tacoma Mall — the only nearby place to take a child to see Santa at the time.

“There was so much snow back in those days that at that point in time it meant all those kids couldn’t go to see Santa,”Robbecke recalled. “He brought Santa to them.”

The elder Robbecke, now 82, was the first to don the Santa suit via tractor. The Christmas tractor is decorated in boughs, lights and bells, and operates regardless of winter weather difficulties.

“It can take a lot out of you,” said Robbecke, who cited rain, snow and a speed of 10 miles per hour as less than optimal conditions for the six-hour trek. “It’s brutal. You can’t put rain gear on over a Santa suit.”

Al’s employees help Santa hand out huge Popsicles to those who want one, and Robbecke projects a number of approximately 700 people that the Christmas tractor visits annually.

“It’s a word-of-mouth tradition,” said Robbecke. “It’s just to be expected. We do it every year.”

Al’s Grocery and Old Fashioned Butcher Shop opened in 1960, so it’s no surprise that John Robbecke says the Christmas tractor tradition is an event that spans generations.

“(Some of) the parents (I see) were kids when my father was Santa,” he said.

One of the most convincing reasons that Robbecke says propels folks to enjoy the Christmas tractor is the fact that it is more personal than waiting in lines in crowded shopping centers to see Santa.

“As opposed to the mall — (the mall is) not very personalized,” said Robbecke. “(With the Christmas tractor) Santa comes to your house. It kind of blends in with the storybook and its a special tradition to some of the little ones.”

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