Patrick Cunningham: “I saw those kids, and thought, ‘You know what, I’m buying them a tree.’”

This holiday season, a few local families received a special delivery from Tucson’s very own Santa Claus. Patrick Cunningham, 65, spends the weeks around Christmas serving as Santa at many locations around Tucson, but the character goes further than his white beard, red robe and jolly demeanor. While Cunningham can be found taking photos in a sleigh on University Boulevard, he also organizes hospital visits as Saint Nick, and recently began delivering Christmas trees to local families who couldn’t afford their own. 

Cunningham has faithfully served as Santa for more than 30 years, and estimates more than one million photos have been taken of him in costume. Always excited to spread the spirit of Christmas, he took it a step further in 2017 after a fateful photo-op. 

While at his usual spot on University during the Christmas season, Aly Busby and her three children stopped by his sleigh. While the kids played, Busby mentioned that her step-father had recently passed away, and her family couldn’t afford a Christmas tree that year. 

“She had no idea what would result from her saying that, and to be honest, neither did I,” Cunningham said. “But I saw those kids, and thought, ‘You know what, I’m buying them a tree.’” 

Embodying the role of Santa, Cunningham already owned the perfect tree delivery vehicle: his red truck with a custom “ST NICK” license plate. He purchased the tree himself and delivered it to the family. 

“It totally restored my kids’ faith in people and in Christmas,” Busby said. “They didn’t care that they didn’t have presents that year, they were happy they had a Christmas tree.”

Busby said two years later her kids still marvel at the fact she knows Santa Claus, and managed to get him to personally deliver a tree for Christmas. 

“It was powerful,” Cunningham said. “There were tears, there was delight, and they were saying how much it had meant to them. I know it’s only a drop in the bucket, but it’s something I can do.” 

Since 2017, his tree donation drive has grown each year. The very next year, he donated a dozen trees. This year, others are getting involved in the giving as well. Valley View Christmas tree farms, which operates multiple locations in Arizona, donates six trees to Cunningham each year. 

“It’s just such an amazing feeling when you give a tree to someone who can’t afford it, and we’ve done it multiple times,” said Mary Page, who operates a local Valley View location. 

The trees go to all manner of local families in need, from those who recently lost a father and are struggling financially, to those who lost a child, to those who are facing unexpected medical bills. Cunningham said the families he helps are often random, organic contacts he makes through his role as Santa, as there are no committees or organizations involved. 

One of Cunningham’s favorite reactions to a donated tree was from an older woman facing financial struggles. 

“I could tell that the woman was so elated,” Cunningham said. “She was 75 and said she hadn’t had a real tree since she was a child. She was dancing around and decorating the tree like she was four.” 

Cunningham says all of his charitable work and role as Santa are to deliver a message of hope that extends beyond any political, religious or cultural barrier. It’s a kind of Golden Rule he hopes will inspire others to do good themselves. He wants others to realize that hope is the true meaning of Christmas, if it can be summed up in a single word. 

“It’s the kind of thing where I can’t help but tear up—there’s just power in this stuff,” Cunningham said. “The whole thing has been about unexpected wonder; one act of kindness inspires another, inspires another. And it’s not just me, anyone can be Santa.” 

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