WOODLAND — For their first photo with Santa as a couple back in 2011, Crystal and Jordan Thurmond wanted to do something funny with the mall Santa at the Lloyd Center in Portland. They ended up with a picture of Santa holding Crystal in a headlock, while Jordan punched Santa in the back of the head.
The couple were preparing to take their daughter, Ruby, 5 months old, to get pictures with Santa for the first time this year when a friend told them about a place in Woodland where people can take pictures with Santa in a beyond-festive chalet.
They looked it up, and soon realized the man hosting the pictures with Santa was Brian Trembley, the mall Santa from the Lloyd Center eight years prior.
“He was just fun and willing to do whatever with us,” Crystal Thurmond said.
On Friday, the Thurmond family drove up from Portland to Woodland to get pictures with Santa Brian, who is in his third year of taking pictures as Santa from a heavily decorated shed that houses a vintage car when it’s not the holiday season. Trembley’s wife, Kayleen Trembley, and their daughter, Ember Trembley, spent two days setting up the decorations. Santa’s Chalet, as they like to call it, has string lights hanging from the ceiling, a tree, presents, lights and the aroma of cinnamon.
The first year, the Trembley’s photos with Santa were a hit and spread via word of mouth. The second year, things grew so much they had to have people waiting out at the beginning of their narrow, one-lane road to turn people away if the line was too long. They moved to a reservation-only model last year and continued it this year. Before the chalet opened for the season, they had more than 200 reservations. It costs anywhere from $40 to $80 depending on group size.
Each group gets 10 or so minutes in the private room with Santa. They talk, joke around and take pictures, although Trembley said it’s more about creating a connection with the families.
“I’m not here for the yuks or the photos,” he said. “I think of myself in the suit as a present for the kids. They get to open it, experience it and wrap it up for the next person.”
Trembley tries to tailor each experience to what his visitor needs. On Friday evening, three young cousins stopped by to spend time with Santa: Connar Williams, 11, Gage Williams, 6, and Houston Sorenson, 5, all from Kelso and Longview. The two older cousins visited the chalet a year ago and were excited to spend time with Santa. They asked for new bike parts, and knew the area behind Santa’s big wooden chair where he kept his candy canes. Houston was a bit nervous, though, and stayed glued to his mom’s leg for much of the visit.
After taking some goofy pictures with the two older cousins — complete with a light-up Santa hat and a Santa hat at least five feet long, both provided by the Trembleys — Santa was able to coax Houston over. He spoke softer to the most nervous of his visitors, and asked if Houston would feel more comfortable sitting on a rocking horse instead of in a seat with Santa. He wasn’t sure. Santa asked if Houston wanted a picture with him. Houston was unsure again.
“Well, I’d really like to have a picture with you,” Santa told the child.
He changed his tune right then, and agreed to sit with Santa for pictures with his cousins, alone and with his mom, aunt and grandmother.
“It ain’t about me,” Trembley said. “It’s about the words or actions that need to come out of me to make that child comfortable.”
Trembley said he has to feel it out and sense what each individual visitor needs. A 1-year-old visitor Friday night wanted no part of Santa or photos. His 3-year-old brother and parents waited patiently, but the child wouldn’t calm down. Santa suggested the family take a walk outside around the pond or enjoy some of the hot chocolate for guests. The family waited outside while Santa met with some other visitors.
When the child calmed down, they tried again, and he was still cranky. They had his mother sit in Santa’s chair and read a book to the boy and his brother. That sealed it, and the boy kept it together long enough to enjoy the visit. Trembley said one way to nervous kids is through their mother and/or an older sibling. If the child sees that they’re okay with Santa, they feel less afraid.
“You just have to feel each one out,” he said. “You can’t have a recipe. There is no recipe.”
It also helps that Trembley can take his time when meeting with the visitors. He worked as a mall Santa in Stockton, Calif., and then at the Lloyd Center for nearly a decade. He said he would have maybe three minutes to spend with each person who waited in line for a visit.
“The mall visits just feel real rushed,” said Ashley Williams, the mother of Connar and Gage. “This is a more personalized experience.”
Trembley started his work as Santa more than a decade ago when a friend asked him to dress up and stop by a store in Woodland. After that, he looked up mall Santa gigs, and found the one in California. Trembley was looking for some extra work, as the winter can be a bit slow for his full-time job working in portable bandsaw milling. He milled the wood for his chalet, and is working on building a bed and breakfast on his property.
The Woodland Santa experience is a family business. Trembley focuses on Santa. His wife and daughter handle the reservations and decorations. His daughter, Ember Trembley, has her own photography business, so she handles the pictures. Ember Trembley said she doesn’t remember her dad as being particularly festive growing up, but working together to bring cheer to others has brought them closer.
“We can look at each other and know what the other is thinking,” she said. “I’m usually not even focused on him. We’re both just looking out for the kids and trying to see what they need. I almost forget it’s him in there.”