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Firefighters go all out to make festive holiday bright

Maybe it's the red suspenders. Maybe it's the hearty home-cooked holiday meals they share in the firehouses where they live and work. But whatever the reason, firefighters and Christmas have become entwined in the popular imagination.

The links range from firefighter Santas and firefighters' toy drives to parades of decorated emergency vehicles and the Santa ride tradition in some suburban districts, where St. Nick visits every street in the district atop a decorated fire truck.

Nowhere is the tradition stronger than at the Buffalo Fire Historical Society's museum, where volunteer members work like busy elves in early November to unpack and set up more than 100 Christmas-themed miniature firehouses, dozens of firefighter nutcrackers, Santa firefighter figurines, some rustic Christmas firehouse birdhouses and dozens of ornaments depicting hydrants, Dalmatians, helmets and other icons of firefighting life.

[See: A gallery of the ceramic firehouses at the Buffalo Fire Historical Society.]

But the intricately detailed miniature vintage firehouses are the star of the show. Standing on a bed of cotton batting, the houses, made of plaster, resin and even stained glass, are decorated with trees and wreaths. Inside tiny illuminated windows, firefighters share a holiday meal or read the newspaper.

A favorite of retired Buffalo Fire Department Lt. Pat Coghlan, president of the society that operates the museum, is a representation of Engine Co. No. 33.  The flick of a switch starts audio tones and dispatch messages, and sends a miniature carousel of firefighters running in and out of a door.

"They say that was my crew," said Coghlan, who first made lieutenant at Engine 33 when it was on Kehr Street.

The holiday display draws plenty of visitors to the museum, especially families with children, said Coghlan.

But why the connection?

"I think it has to do with the fact that firefighters are popular with kids," said the Rev. Al Clody, who spent more than 23 years as chaplain of the Buffalo Fire Department and is now chaplain of his department in Westfield. "It starts with kids, and then it goes to big kids."

After a moment's thought, Clody said that the link could grow from "the innate respect that people have for firefighters and first responders in general, and could be an expression of the need we all have for heroes in our lives."

Also, said Clody, "You have Santa's red suit and flowing beard, and Santa looks good as a firefighter. It just fits, hand in glove."

This miniature ceramic firehouse is made to look like a movie theater. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

This miniature ceramic firehouse is made to look like a movie theater. Now playing: "Backdraft," a movie about firefighters. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

The museum's Christmas exhibit, which also includes a short track for a model train carrying -- what else? -- two fire trucks, will be on display until the end of January. The museum, which also contains an extensive collection of historical equipment, photos, badges and uniforms, is open every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and by appointment for groups at other times. Admission is free.

But the museum is far from the only firefighter-themed Christmas event locally.

The longest-running is the Niagara Falls Firefighters Christmas Toy Fund, which is in its 88th year of  helping children and senior citizens. The all-volunteer group uses 100 percent of its contributions to buy winter clothes and Christmas gifts for children living in poverty and provide a festive holiday dinner for local seniors.

John Castellani, Toy Fund chairman, said the longstanding tradition could be traced to the Niagara Falls Fire department's deep involvement with the community. Even today, during the department's responses to fires, medical emergencies and other calls, he said, "We see children and families living in poverty, and I'm pretty sure that's what motivated those first guys so long ago, to see if they could help those families out, to get those kids something for Christmas."

The annual Niagara Falls telethon will be held from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Dec. 3, at Niagara Falls High School, 4455 Porter Road, where a basket auction will be held. The telethon will be shown on the Time Warner OSC Channel-21.4.

Donations may be sent to P.O. Box 271, Niagara Falls, N.Y. 14304.

The most spectacular firefighter Christmas event will start at 6 p.m. Nov. 26, when the Greater Lancaster Museum of Firefighting, 6 W. Main St., will hold its ninth annual Christmasville Fire Truck Parade. The parade, which will include almost 150 decorated emergency vehicles, begins at Lancaster High School, 1 Forton Dr., then heads south on Central Avenue to Broadway.

"The fire service loves to decorate and to have a little bit of a competition," said Tom Trzepacz, co-chair of the annual parade and vice president of the Lancaster museum. Trzepacz estimated that thousands of people will line the streets to see the parade, which started with 19 pieces of apparatus nine years ago and this year will attract almost 150 vehicles from more than 60 departments across five counties.

Decorated emergency vehicles will also take part in this year's Holiday Spirit Parade in the Village of Gowanda. The parade, which will include decorated apparatus as well as other parade participants, is scheduled to start at 7 p.m. Dec. 3, after the village's tree lighting ceremony at 5:30 p.m.  in Chang Hu Park on West Main Street. The parade will be followed by fireworks.

The Amherst Fire Council will accept contributions from the public for its annual Christmas Toy Drive from 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. Dec. 10 in the Main-Transit Fire Department's Station 1, 6777 Main St.

The Explorers Post 2283, based at the fire department, will accept toys, clothing and personal care items for children and young adults, which will be distributed to local agencies. Bruce Krebs, a member of the Main-Transit department who works with the Explorers, said the drive was held at the Swormville Fire Co. for 11 years and is entering its third year at Main-Transit.

The Amherst Fire Council will also accept donations collected at the 10 fire departments and companies in Amherst, Krebs said.

Lancaster's Trzepacz offered a theory about why Christmas and firefighters are linked in the popular imagination. "Christmas is the season of giving, and that's what the fire service is all about, taking care of each other and giving back and helping the community," he said.

The fire museum will be open after the parade, which culminates with prizes for best decorated vehicles. "It's become a huge community event," said Trzepacz.

And who will be having more fun, the spectators or the firefighters in the decorated apparatus? "It's probably a 50-50 shot, definitely a combination of the two," he said, laughing.




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