CAMDEN — Santa has been visiting Christmas by the Sea almost as far back as the celebration began.

He saw what was a small parade with “just a few vehicles” — evolve over the years “into one of the better parades in the state of Maine.”

He remembers his first year in Camden, before there was a parade. He sat outside The Smiling Cow in a homemade chair with a Christmas tree and waved to cars driving by.

Even Santa gets cold, so he decided to go into stores that were open and talk to store owners and customers about Christmas By the Sea.

Santa has so many memories of Christmas By the Sea, “It’s amazing,” he said.

One year he was tackled by a little girl who clung to his leg and went everywhere he went. She and her family showed up wherever he was, and he got to know them. Since then, quite a few children have followed him everywhere he goes.

One year the parade began where High Mountain Hall is located today. Santa was riding on the Cub Scout’s float, as he does every year now, and the seat of his chair fell through. He quickly grabbed a wreath and sat on it to make himself taller.

The parade stopped at the five corners near French & Brawn and Camden National Bank, and Santa walked to the Village Green for the tree lighting. The reason the parade stopped was no one had blocked traffic from the south end of Route 1.

Santa has more than a few favorite things when it comes to Christmas By the Sea. He loves chugging into Camden on the tugboat Barbi D. It’s always an adventure arriving in the workboat in Rockport Harbor.

He loves seeing the same people every year on the boats, and to see the crowds waiting on shore.

“It’s always exhilarating to see everyone standing there, and waving to them and coming up on the dock to greet everyone,” he said.

And then there’s riding fire engines, which is how Santa arrives in Lincolnville, where he has sung sing carols with everyone on the beach.

When children come up to him, he makes eye contact, shakes their hand, and bends down to talk — to every single one, he said.

“That to me is what Christmas is about. It’s their time, not mine, because they have come out to see Santa. When you make it personal for them, it makes it more real.”

Another thing he loves is having Ellen the Elf along with him. “Ellen is the motherly figure, who really helps with small children,” he said.

Santa is a big person, standing six-feet tall. Children are so excited to see him that they’re yelling to him when they’re waiting on line. “But some freeze when they get up to the front,” he said.

Ellen the Elf “is a great icebreaker with the kids.” She can read children really well, and many more open up to her than to me, Santa said.

When children come up and ask for their special presents, whether traditional or the latest technological gadget, Santa always knows what to say. Sometimes when presented with a request that might be hard to fill, he will promise to look for the present, but if he can’t find it, the child “will find something special just for you, that will say it’s from Santa.”

If asked for a horse or a pet, he tells the child, “that’s a live and living creature and we have to check with your mom and dad.”

Each year, there are three opportunities for photos with Santa, one in Camden, one in Rockport and another in Lincolnville. “We originally started photos at the YMCA in Camden, in the gym, a large space. That has grown over the years to take care of the amount of people who wanted photos,” he said.

Photographer Mark Haskell has been with Santa all these years taking photos. “He loves to do this, and give them to the families, for a donation for a cause.”

Another favorite memory is story time at the Camden Public Library, reading “The Night Before Christmas” “with all the kids chiming in — they all know the words.”

After the story, Santa answers all kinds of questions. One year he got what he calls a “wise guy” question:  if Jesus is the reason for the season, what are you all about?

Santa asked his own question, and answered it, in turn.

“Why did Jesus come? He came to give us the Father’s love, and in giving that, he showed us the love. When we give gifts to children it’s about the love that’s expressed at this time of the year.”

Christmas has always about how to express love to one another, Santa said.

Over the years, Santa’s route has included places like the  Midcoast Recreation Center in Rockport, though he does not stop there now. He would see all the preschoolers waiting for him, as well as the teenagers and kids coming in for hockey —  just doing something that’s normal for them, suddenly gasping because they just saw Santa.

Christmas By the Sea has changed a lot over the years, and it will change again, Santa said. What truly makes the parade and the holiday is the people who come to see the parade, he said, especially the children.

Santa greets the children after arriving in Rockport Harbor. Photo by Susan Mustapich