Bringing Christmas to the Castle

How Rod Hunter and his Christmas Decor team deck the halls of the Sanford Children’s Hospital.

By: Jenny Rackl .

Rod Hunter lifts one of his sons to the top of the tree at Christmas at the Castle
Rod Hunter lifts one of his sons to the top of the tree at Christmas at the Castle
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It starts in the days before Thanksgiving in 5,000 square feet of warehouse space.

Doors swing open and gloved hands reach forward to bring out crates full of decorations. Boxes of ornaments are opened. Strings of lights -– in the hundreds –- are plugged in and holiday displays are checked. Wreaths and garlands are sorted –- and then they unwrap the trees.

“I’ve usually got about five guys in the shop and we fluff out all the trees,” Rod Hunter, owner of Christmas Decor says with a laugh. “My guys don’t like that, but we still call it fluffing.”

Just like the holiday season, it’s an annual process to bring all the splendor of Christmas to Sanford Health’s Castle of Care. Since 2007, Hunter’s Lawn & Landscape, an affiliate of the holiday decorating company Christmas Decor, has decorated the outside and interior of the Sanford Children’s Hospital, as well as other buildings across the main Sanford Health campus in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, from the surgical tower to the Imagenetics building and Ava’s House.

An especially important part of the company’s outside decorating is getting the outside Christmas tree, which is brought to the Sanford Children’s Hospital by truck, ready for the lighting ceremony, which officially kicks off the holiday season each year. This involves a boom lift to reach even the highest branches with lights and decorations that will sparkle and shine.

Some assembly required

The process of decorating the Sanford Children’s Hospital includes storing decorations for the 11 months when they’re not in use. The behind-the-scenes details of the operation might not be as magical as the end result, but there’s a lot of heart that goes into the project at every stage.

“We bring in a variety of different decorations and try to put a smile on everybody’s face over the holidays,” Hunter says.

The evening of Thanksgiving, when most families are either lounging at home or in the hustle of early holiday shopping, Hunter and his crew are at the warehouse, loading up all of the decorations onto trailers for transportation to the hospital. Then the day after Thanksgiving, they start delivering and spend the weekend –- quite literally -– decking the halls.

“I don’t know how many boxes we bring in –- lots of boxes full of everything from polar bears to elves to Santa Clauses and a mailbox to the North Pole,” Hunter says. “We’ve probably got a couple hundred feet of garland that’s strung around the lobby and the railings. And we’ve got bows and wreaths and then sock monkeys for the kids. There’s a lot that we bring in.”

According to Hunter, the goal is not perfection, but to make each tree look as though kids went and chose their favorite ornaments for it. The team tries to choose colorful, whimsical and fun decorations to capture imaginations. The crew members sometime even wear Santa hats while they decorate.

“We go for big, bulky, fun ornaments,” Hunter says. “We’ve had elves split in half and we’ve had their behind and legs hanging out of the tree. We try to do something a little different and creative every year.”

By the end of that last weekend in November, despite long hours and sometimes icy conditions, the majority of the Christmas decorations are displayed and the hospital feels very festive.

Spreading joy as a family

One year, Hunter unintentionally started a special tradition for decorating the trees set up in the Castle lobby.

“It started as kind of a fluke. I got behind so I called my wife and asked her to help me decorate the trees,” Hunter explains. “And she brought our twin boys in with her, so they started decorating. And I thought it was such a neat sight to see them helping, as children themselves, put decorations on the trees.”

Ever since then, Hunter’s wife and their twin sons, Leighton and Blake, come in and help decorate the lobby trees. They do everything from hanging ornaments to putting out the display gift boxes.

“Thank gosh we’ve got enough trees that they don’t have to fight over the stars, because they like putting the tree toppers on,” Hunter says. “They look forward to it.”

It’s a special area of the Children’s Hospital, now reserved each year for a meaningful family tradition.

Sent from the heart

Among many amazing memories throughout the years, Hunter says another one that sticks out is when his youngest son decided to write a letter the Santa Claus to encourage other kids to use the mailbox for the North Pole.

After writing the note and addressing it to Santa, his son slid it carefully through the mail slot.

“By the time we were leaving, somebody had already come and put another letter in the mailbox,” Hunter recalls. “So we took the letter, and we actually got the child what they had asked for from Santa Claus. My wife purchased a couple of the items and we brought them back anonymously and gave them to the front desk to be delivered from Santa Claus, in reply to the letter in the mailbox.”

Fulfilling wishes from the mailbox has become another family tradition for the Hunters. They’ve even noticed that others have also started answering some of the letters too.

The magic of Christmas

All of Christmas Decor’s decorating work throughout the Sioux Falls area is done to make people happy throughout the holidays, but to Hunter there’s something extra special about the Sanford Children’s Castle of Care Hospital. It breaks the crew out of the routine.

“When you’re decorating and you’re seeing families walk through the lobby, seeing the kids being wheeled through and their eyes light up, and that’s the whole point,” Hunter says. “That’s my favorite part. It’s not the lights or the decorations –- it’s the smiles on their faces or watching them stick their heads in the Santa Claus cutout or walk up to touch the polar bear. It’s the families watching us when the lobby goes from being nothing to, within a few hours, a winter wonderland.”

It can be emotional for families to be in the hospital during the holidays. Hunter hopes that the decorations at the Castle can put a smile on their faces, even if just for awhile.

“It gets me every year. Some years it’s tougher than others, you know. You just have to keep it in perspective that, you’re doing it for them,” he says.

Hunter and his crew enjoy attending the annual Christmas lighting ceremony, where the final element of their hard work is on full display and they get to watch families soak in the magic of the countdown.

“A lot of people don’t know what we do, and that’s totally fine, but to stand back and hear the kids ‘ooohh’ while running over to the tree or to listen to several hundred people standing outside counting down at the big tree lighting ceremony, it can be emotional,” Hunter says. “When we’re standing out there we’re seeing families that are all here for a reason.”

And no matter what that reason is, Hunter is thankful to be a part of helping the littlest patients and their families see the magic of Christmas –- even through a hospital window.

Video: Christmas at the Castle