Sleigh bells ring in an early Christmas

The Bolton News: Santa with brothers Jake, aged two, and Daniel Hartley, aged five Santa with brothers Jake, aged two, and Daniel Hartley, aged five

FOR around 40 years, Christmas in Westhoughton has been ushered in by sleigh bells ringing.

But rather than in the early hours of Christmas Day, Father Christmas and his reindeer make the dreams of the town’s children come true a little earlier.

The Rotary Club of Westhoughton has made an institution of the sleigh it sends round all the town’s streets over 16 days in the run-up to Christmas.

Members estimate that the club has operated a sleigh since at least the late 1970s — although it has changed somewhat since then.

Originally, the club ran a small, modest sleigh, with two model reindeer attached to each side.

Now, they tour the area in a grand sleigh, donated to them by Horwich firm Indesp-ension in 1998, which is manned by Father Christmas and some of his elves.

Using an MP3 music system installed in 2003, the sleigh’s jingles resonate round estates across the town, from Hunger Hill to Daisy Hill, and Wingates to Over Hulton.

Harold Daniels, aged 79, the club’s secretary who has regularly donned Santa’s red suit over the years, said: “The sleigh has become an institution in Westhoughton, as it has been going on for so many years.

“In recent years I have grown my own beard in preparation rather than have to rely on a false one, “The children get so excited when you drive past and it is such a fulfilling thing to do to make the kids so happy, it’s fantastic.”

Mr Daniels got involved in the rotary club in 2000, shortly after he moved to Westhoughton, and he said the sleigh’s music is enough to coax children and their parents out into the cold.

He said: “We don’t door knock like other people do, we just let the music draw the children out.

“We publicise the route so people know that we are coming and we try to stop for at least two or three minutes on every street.

“We’re out for about three hours on each run and we give all the children a lolly and accept their letters to Santa.

“Another nice touch is that we send them a letter back as well, signed off by Santa, so they have a nice memento to keep.”

Westhoughton Rot-ary Club was formed in 1948.

Mr Daniels said: “We have a huge advantage in Westhoughton because it is a community, with easily defined boundaries.

“People can see the benefits of it and appreciate the work you’re doing.”

The group’s work has also been praised by Westhoughton’s mayor, Cllr Christ-opher Peacock.

He said: “The rotary club does excellent work and this is a prime example.

”I remember seeing the sleigh coming round when I was a child and it really does make a festive occasion for the whole town to enjoy.”

Fulfilling a dream for children is worthy enough, but any donations the club receives on its tour is well spent.

Rather than support one cause, the club donates to between 25 and 30 deserving groups at its presentation evening every March.

It also puts money raised to its other events, including the popular St George's Day Party, which caters for 150 pensioners in Westh-oughton.

And, of course, the sleigh gives genera-tions of Westhoughton people the chance to recall how, on a dark, magical night, they had their childhood visit from Santa Claus.

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