SULTAN — Everyone in Sultan knows Brett Nichols by another name: Santa.
Most of the year, Nichols, 50, is a custodian at Sultan High School. But come winter, he grows out his beard and dons a handmade Santa suit, with a bit of leopard print in the fur collar for flair. He poses for Christmas cards and gathers all the Christmas wishes from the kids of Sultan.
Being Santa is a family tradition and a part of Nichols’ identity. He wears the same handmade Santa suit his father wore for the kids of Sultan decades before. When his father passed away, the suit passed on to Nichols.
“I was scared at first — living up to my dad’s shoes — but I did it, and then it got a little easier,” he said. “And people kept asking me, ‘Could you do this? Could you do that?’ so I did.”
But this year, two months before this Christmas season, Nichols received a devastating diagnosis: brain cancer.
Nichols had bouts of dizziness and a mysterious clenching in his hand for about a year. The root cause of the varied symptoms wore a multitude of masks: It could have been the long-term effects of COVID, his blood-sugar regulation, or a variety of other issues. In October, however, Nichols’ went in for a CT scan and doctors found two brain tumors. An MRI the following week confirmed the tumors were cancerous.
Nichols’ partner of 15 years Tami Lynn took him to appointments and helped him when he felt fatigued. They each have kids of their own and had talked about marriage before, but they decided the legal title wasn’t necessary. Instead, they bought wedding rings on their one-year anniversary and had them engraved with the letters “BLT” for “Brett Loves Tami.”
Lynn wanted to be there for Nichols in the hospital, but only spouses and direct family are allowed in. Days ahead of a brain biopsy appointment, they decided to not wait any longer.
The couple planned their wedding in two days.
They called their children and grandchildren, inviting everyone to a rest stop at the top of Snoqualmie Pass for a makeshift wedding. One of Lynn’s daughters called a nearby inn, asking if they could borrow the lobby for a quick ceremony. Nichols’ niece, a photographer, offered to take photos. Another of Tami’s daughters made special sugar free sugar cookies in place of a wedding cake.
But Nichols’ didn’t have to search for a suit. He had just the one.
Lynn found a matching red dress, leaning into her new role as Mrs. Claus.
“Wearing the Santa suit at our wedding … it made me feel like dad was there, too,” Nichols said.
Lynn, now Tami Nichols, reminisced on how the pieces came together.
“That whole first fall we started dating, I couldn’t stop smiling. I never thought I’d get married again. I was happy. I had six kids. I didn’t need to get married,” she said. “But he always made me smile. He still makes me smile.”
Thirty family members drove up for the Nov. 20 wedding. The duo exchanged vows in the lobby of the inn and took pictures outside in the snow. The family feasted on pancakes and BLT sandwiches. (Because Brett Loves Tami.) It was a perfect Christmas wedding.
On Nov. 23, Brett Nichols underwent his biopsy. Doctors took samples of tissue from each tumor to better determine his treatment moving forward. They expect to have answers and next steps in late December.
The biopsy alone cost $187,000, and while most of that was covered by insurance, the newlyweds had to pay $1,200 out of pocket — a sum they couldn’t afford.
Brett Nichols’ stepdaughter Kazia Wagg started an online fundraiser with a goal of raising $10,000.
“We have to have the biopsy to guide treatment, but I wouldn’t have had $1,200 in my bank account to cover that,” Tami Nichols said. “All those people who took Santa pictures with him over the years contributed to that gofundme and covered his biopsy.”
On Dec. 4, just a week after the procedure, Brett Nichols suited up. His red fur Santa cap hid rows of staples.
Snow had fallen the night before, blanketing U.S. 2 with white powder. Nestled back in the pine trees, Brett Nichols posed with family after family, grinning and jolly.
The Hancock family has been taking pictures with Nichols for seven years. Mother Rhonda Hancock said they have been praying for Nichols.
“I cried when I found out he was sick,” Hancock said. “He loves what he does, and he’s good at it. Every year it’s the same thing: My daughter gets excited to see him and can’t stop talking about it. We get there, and she’s shy because it’s a very big deal for her to visit with him, and then on the way home she can’t stop talking about Santa. It’s pretty adorable. I hope that Santa Brett knows how much she loves visiting him every year.”
Kids clambered into his lap and confided their wishes for a Barbie Dream House and LEGO Star Wars set. Santa Brett promised to report back to the head honcho in the North Pole, seeing as he’s Santa’s helper.
The Johnson twins took their first pictures in Santa’s lap at just three months old, and then again a year later, wailing and crying in his arms. Now 8 years old, the girls know him — he’s like family.
“Brett has been on our fridge continuously for eight years,” said Kristin Johnson, the twins’ mother. “The Santa photos are part of the mailing that we send out to all of our family and friends each year. He’s been a huge part of our family for years.”
Kristin Johnson graduated from Sultan High a year after Brett Nichols did. She said that Sultan is a small community, and as peers, they look out for one another.
“It’s been really fun to watch him take on the role as Santa that his dad had also done,” Johnson said. “He’s such a great, warm, loving man. And it shows with the kids. He’s always held a special place in our hearts.”
Brett Nichols plans to continue his Santa duties through Christmas, as his health allows.
“My Christmas wish is just to get better,” Brett Nichols said.
The online fundraiser is titled “Saving Saint Nichols“ on gofundme. As of Dec. 9, the community had raised $6,139 to help with medical bills.
Kayla J. Dunn: 425-339-3449; email@example.com; Twitter: @KaylaJ_Dunn.
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