Too late, I realized I was front and center of 200-plus hyped-up Santas about to push off from the top of the chairlift. As I adjusted my pull-on beard and slipped black-mittened hands through pole straps, I could feel the festive crowd behind me on Sunday River's Broadway trail pulsing in eager anticipation.
"Oh, man. I hope I don't get run over," I said to the Santa next to me, a woman named Lena who'd come up from Boston for her 17th Santa Sunday with her husband. He doesn't ski, so he was safely at the bottom of the hill.
"Just go fast!" Lena advised as she got into position and pulled her goggles down.
At least I was in a better spot than the guy holding the megaphone about 10 yards down slope. "Remember, this is not a race!" he shouted to the white-bearded, red-suited crowd seconds before they slid right at him. "Watch out for the other Santas!"
With that, it was every man-, woman-, and child-Santa for themselves as we all exploded downhill in a blast of red and white, more "Yee-haw!" wild than "Ho-Ho-Ho" jolly.
This was the 19th Annual Santa Sunday at the Maine resort, the only event—so far as I can tell—of its kind. It's a little wacky to be surrounded by a sea of skiing Santas, but it's all for a good cause. A $20 participation donation goes to the local River Fund to benefit kids' educational and recreational causes. That donation gets you a lift ticket for Santa Sunday, plus a return ticket for another day of skiing in December.
With the best early season conditions I can remember in the east, Sunday River has already seen five feet of snow, more than a third of its average annual snowfall—the day's steady drizzle did little to dampen the holiday spirit, although it did thoroughly soak the faux fur of my Santa suit.
I'd arrived about an hour earlier and noticed a few Santa suit-clad folks meandering in from the parking lot and roaming the lodge. There were snowboarders and skiers, kids and parents, long-robed Santas and some in flouncy Mrs. Claus-style coats. There was one guy dressed like a cartoon reindeer and a few kids walking around in elf hats.
Croony Christmas tunes wafted from the speakers outside the base lodge as the Santa crowd grew. Kids followed Sunday River's mascot, Eddy the Yeti, around, seemingly oblivious to the rain.
The guy with the megaphone—Sunday River Events Coordinator Trent Rosenberg—rounded all the Santas up for a pre-ski photo shoot, then sent us off to form groups of four to ride the chair, which is open for this one run only to Santas.
Lena and I, and two snowboarding kids from the University of New Hampshire, landed on first chair. Which is how I ended up in my precarious center slope position at the unload.
Decked out in my borrowed Santa suit, I let the more eager jolly-old-elves careen past me, then eased my way down the crowded trail. Despite the wet weather, spectators lined up to watch the skiing Santa spectacle. About half-way down, a row of smiling kids stood slopeside, arms outstretched toward the crowd of St. Nicks. I sidled that direction and high-fived each one, embracing the fun of the day.
"We always get a really good turnout," said Rosenberg, having survived the onslaught of Santas during his first year as the chief Santa wrangler. "It's much more intense when you are actually in it. Next year, I'll have a way better plan."
If you want to join the skiing Santas, you'd best have a plan, too; registration, which happens in late November, fills up within minutes for this wildly festive event.