At a time when smiles have sometimes been in short supply because of last week's tragedy in Newtown, Santa Claus took time out of his busy schedule a week before Christmas to spread local cheer.
Arriving in a Fairfield Fire Department rescue truck, Santa stopped by homes where he was greeted, sometimes shyly, by the children and adults awaiting his visit.
The "Santa Express" is a program started six years ago by the local firefighters' union, International Association of Fire Fighters 1426. Families sign up for a visit from the big guy for a fee of $25 per child. The money raised is split by the union between the Muscular Dystrophy Association and the Connecticut Burn Center at Bridgeport Hospital.
This year, those weekend visits raised $9,000, according to Robert Smith, the union president.
"We have come a long way in six years," Smith said. "Six families in our first year to over 60 this year."
The project was started as a fundraiser for MDA, but after a Fairfield firefighter was burned in one of several arson fires in 2011 and spent time in the Bridgeport Hospital burn unit, Smith said it became a "personal quest" for the firefighters that this region have a top-notch best burn center. Last year, the decision was made to split the funds between the two groups.
"The Santa Express gives our guys a chance to get out in the community and meet with our citizens," Smith said. "We have made some great friendships over the last six years and people have included us as part of their holiday traditions."
The firefighters volunteer their time for the visits, and the union pays all expenses associated with the event.
On Friday night, the stops were all over town. Often, while the youngsters pressed their faces to the window or waited impatiently on the porch, parents rushed out to hand Santa some gifts to be presented to the kids.
At some homes, whole neighborhoods waited. Families on Eleanor Terrace plan a neighborhood party for their annual Santa visit, with a fire pit blazing at the end of the dead-end street.
For every stop, parents made sure to snap some photos with Santa -- in front of the house, in front of the Christmas tree, in front of the fireplace.
In exchange, Santa got hugs, cookies and, at one home, a small bottle of Gogurt. Smith and his wife, Jennifer, who came along for the ride and collected the fees, said some people sign up every year and the firefighters have been able to watch the children grow up.
Anyone interested in signing up for next year's Christmastime visits should check the union's website, www.iaff1426.org, and click on the Santa Express enrollment tab.
"Believe it or not, we already have folks signed up for next year," Smith said.