Sapphire Point’s Diana Hafdahl was sitting in a doctor’s office texting her husband, Jacob.
He had been searching for a Walmart that had 14-foot inflatable Santas in stock and was now 45 minutes away from their Lakewood Ranch home, as he continued what had become a futile search.
When the doctor came into the room, Diana Hafdahl said she had a “Santa situation” and she continued texting with her husband. The doctor sat waiting for her to finish communicating with her husband.
Meanwhile, Jacob Hafdahl was explaining to four Walmart employees that he needed multiple Santas for his neighborhood of Sapphire Point and that he was told this particular store had them in stock. The Walmart employees went on a search through their stockroom, but after two hours, he had had four of the inflatable Santas.
That meant that more than 45 homes in Sapphire Point have inflatable Santas towering over their front yards, creating what some neighbors have begun to call the Sapphire Santas.
The Sapphire Santas started with Brianna Wener on Hidden Oaks Loop. She saw a video on social media in mid November in which a neighborhood in Toronto, Canada had inflatable Santas on both sides of the street. She thought the idea would be fun and bring joy to her community.
Wener sent the video to her neighbor Natalie Apodaca and suggested they do the same on their street to spread joy and cheer.
Before they knew it, the idea spread and inflatable Santas were popping up on Hidden Oaks Loop. Then residents on other streets were asking to participate, which Wener was elated to hear.
Santas kept popping up all over the neighborhood.
“I wonder how many times the Walmart driver has had to come down the street to deliver Santas?” Wener said.
Every time Amanda Johnson takes her dog for a walk at night, she said she sees a new Santa.
Her family had a “starter Santa” that was 9 feet tall, but she wanted to go bigger and join the homes with 14-feet version.
AnneMarie Rizzo, who moved into Sapphire Point after Thanksgiving, couldn’t wait to put her Santa up.
She originally had ordered an "in-store pickup" but then received a notification saying the order was canceled. The Sarasota and Manatee Walmarts were having a run on their 14-foot Santas.
Then on Dec. 6, the wind was strong enough to topple several of the Santas, including Rizzo’s. She said it was a stressful day as she watched her Santa sway in the wind.
After her Santa went down, she immediately went into her yard to get him upright again. Rizzo, an attorney, said she spent so much time focused on the Santa, she almost was late for court.
Wener, Diana Hafdahl and Apodaca all said they’ve met new neighbors and developed friendships as a result of the Sapphire Santas.
Diana Hafdahl said they’ve connected with future neighbors who haven’t moved into the neighborhood yet because their homes aren’t ready. She said they’re buying Santas this year in preparation for next year.
Apodaca said the Santas have given people better appreciation for their neighborhood and a greater sense of community.
Apodaca moved to Sapphire Point from California, and she said she was nervous about the move.
“We had a wonderful life (in California). We moved here for a better life, but you’re nervous about who your neighbors are going to be,” she said. “You think, ‘Am I making the biggest mistake of my life?' This is just one of the many things that you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is exactly what I wanted.’ I feel like I’m in a Hallmark movie.”
Diana Hafdahl said she’s received messages from neighbors who won’t be home for the holidays, but they still want to participate.
Apodaca said the Santas will be something children will remember for years to come.
“As adults, we have somebody’s childhood in our hands right? When you grow older, you say, ‘Well, in my childhood, we did this,’” she said. “We have this amazing opportunity to make this an awesome tradition. It’s not about presents. These are the memories.”
Rizzo, Diana Hafdahl, Johnson, Wener and Apodaca all said this year is just the beginning. They foresee most of the neighborhood participating next year, and neighbors on particular streets choosing different inflatables to make their street unique.
Liz Ramos covers education and community for East County. Before moving to Florida, Liz was an education reporter for the Lynchburg News & Advance in Virginia for two years after graduating from the Missouri School of Journalism.