Yelm’s ‘free-range Santa’ aims to bring more joy to the community during the holiday season


By Jacob Dimond

For the last four Christmas seasons in Yelm, Harry Miller, also known locally as Santa, has tried to bring more holiday joy to the community and surrounding areas in a variety of ways.

The joyous man with the big white beard, who describes himself as a “free-range Santa,” can often be seen in full Santa attire at official events or just at different businesses at any given time to spread some Christmas joy.

“There’s been times where I’ll have done an event, and then I’ll stop by the Moose Lodge or the 507 Taproom or the Local, and I’ll give a ‘ho, ho, ho,’ and go from table to table to wish everyone a merry Christmas,” Miller said. “Last year, I went to every school in the Yelm district. I was out there when the buses came, and I had my lights on the sleigh. It all went really well, including Lackamas, which is right behind our station on Bald Hills.”

Miller, who is a Bald Hills Fire Department commissioner when he’s not the jolly man in red, said he was originally approached in 2020 to grow out his beard and assume the role of Santa Claus because the fire chief’s dad was dealing with physical issues and unsure if he could continue filling St. Nick’s shoes. Eventually the man regained his strength and resumed his role, but Miller had already grown out his beard and was beginning to enjoy serving as Santa in this area.

“I was wearing red, had a big beard and was engaging with all these kids. I’ve only been doing this for three to four years, somewhere in there, and it’s such a delight for me,” Miller said. “When we came into the Christmas season of 2020, I would set up in the Senior Center parking lot with my sleigh, with the bench, and [talked to] anybody that wanted to come in for two to three hours. We collected a little over $900 for the senior center, which worked out great for them.”

Miller, who feels a sense of pride in giving back to the local community, said the money raised for the senior center was used to replace the air conditioning system within the building.

The free-range Santa is also involved with the Knights of Columbus of the St. Columban Catholic Church in Yelm and recently participated in an event where the church was giving out winter coats to those who needed them. While coats were being handed out, Miller took photos with people who wanted them.

“This last Saturday, we hung out, and I was there from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., and they gave away 175 winter coats. Santa was there and got to be a big part of that. It just opens your heart to so many things,” Miller said. “The Santa thing, for me, is such a perfect fit. My grandpa, back in the day when there wasn’t a radio, would come into town, and kids would gather around. He’d go up and speak down and give the kids complete stories with all the different stories, and I believe it’s in my DNA to give back to kids.

“One thing I got from my dad was that people need to be loved, not trusted. This works for everything. You earn the trust, but you can love everyone. You can keep the door open, but trust is earned,” Miller continued. “As I get older, I realize that this has to be fun for the people I encounter, but it needs to be more fun for me. We need to be way more delightful and creative with each other.”

Miller will be at Yelm Community Center for free photos with Santa at 4:45 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 30. He’ll also present a “sneak peak” of Yelm City Park’s Christmas lights at the event. The photos with Santa will be printed at the event.

“I’m doing more commercial stuff now because people are asking me to do that sort of thing. It’s keeping me revenue neutral, and I’ve been picking up events where people are paying me, but my heart is in my free-range style of Santa. I enjoy being Santa wherever I am and some of my most delightful interactions happen in Safeway or Walmart,” Miller said. “When you’re working with a kid, and you’re working with someone and you’re able to find some light within yourself, that’s when you’re really able to shine. That’s always my goal, to try to make that connection. It’s the best. It’s that connection.”

Miller will also participate in Yelm’s Christmas Parade at 9 a.m., Saturday, Dec. 1, where he’ll ride in his sleigh. His sleigh will be pulled by a 1927 Howard Cooper fire engine, after he was asked by Stewart Kunkel, fire commissioner and firefighter for the City of Renton, to do so.

“This is going to be fun this year. That rig lives here. I told him I’d only ride in the vehicle if it could tow Santa’s sleigh. We want to make this a real celebration, the Christmas parade. It will be so much fun. I have so much going on this Saturday,” Miller said. “There’s a chain of blessing that goes through when you get to work with kids and give them hope. I’ve been Santa to so many kids.”

For Miller, it’s all about loving, sharing and giving a gift. He learned this lifestyle at a young age when his dad, described as a “tough, old Marine,” told him that those who give will always have enough, but those who are takers never do.

“It’s such a wonderful thing if you can stay giving. It keeps your heart fresh, and I get to do that year round. If a kid sees Santa, I’m ready to fulfill that,” Miller said. “You just listen to the kids. I had two sisters on Saturday and asked them what they wanted for Christmas. One said she wanted some yarn, and one told me she wanted an art kit, and I thought that was cool. I learned about what she wanted to do with the art kit, and it’s funny — when she grabbed one of the candy canes she pointed out that it’s teal. It’s the artist in her because most kids would’ve just called it green. It’s little connections like that.”

Millers described making these local connections as incredibly special.

“I’ve made connections with people young and old. I’m on the board for the senior center and this town loves its seniors. I’ve got the spectrum of old and young, and it’s just a delight for me,” Miller said. “I’ve got friends that do this for some serious money, but I just want to be revenue neutral. It’s never been about money for me.”