Santa Claus is coming to town – in a school bus

When South Kitsap School District bus driver Rich Niemi dresses up in costume for his route, it’s done more than just for a lark.

“High school can be difficult for kids at times. If I can brighten their day at all and make it better, I’d like to.”

And although this holiday season he has dressed as an elf, Rudolph, a snowman, a nutcracker and Jolly Saint Nick himself, Niemi’s costumes aren’t limited to Christmas themes.

“I dress up for pretty much every holiday,” he said.

“I’m a leprechaun on Saint Patrick’s Day. I’m George Washington on his birthday or Abe Lincoln on his.

“Basically anytime I can dress up, I do.”

Niemi has been donning costumes during his seven years as a bus driver. When in high school, he had a teacher who would dye her hair for every different holiday. Although a part of him thought it was weird, he was fascinated. The idea stuck with him as he became a driver.

And now, several others have started dressing up alongside him during the holidays.

“It’s a growing thing,” Niemi said. “Little by little, more are doing it.”

When he first started wearing costumes, he thought only the elementary students would enjoy it, which they did. At the junior-high level, he got a lot of mixed reactions at first: from confusion to students telling him that he’s awesome.

“The high school kids would say, ‘That’s so cool!’ when they saw me and got excited I drove their route,” Niemi said. “

What I’m most surprised about is the parents’ reactions.”

Niemi said parents immediately latched on to his attire. Some, he said, even enjoy it more than the kids do.

“They’ll see me on Leif Erikson Day and ask, ‘What holiday is it? Oh wait, I know!’ They just know based on how I’m dressed,” he said.

Although he has the most outfits for Christmas, Niemi prefers the historical holidays like George Washington’s birthday.

“I can give a two-minute history lesson along with why I’m dressed up,” he said.

In fact, on non-holidays, he’ll sometimes wear a whacky hat or light up his shoes to continue the tradition, as well as remind kids to be safe.

Three years ago, a South Kitsap student — a friend of Niemi’s son — was struck by a car and killed at night. That tragedy has spurred Niemi to remind his passengers to be “safe and be seen.”

“I have a tradition of handing out small, one-dollar flashlights to kids,” he said.

“I want to preach to them to be real visible at night.

“Whether it’s with a flashlight, their phone, or a funky hat or light-up shoes. I want to educate the kids along with having fun.”

Niemi said the favorite thing about his funky costumes is the fact that it makes people smile.

“It’s the only reason I do it,” he said.

“Anything to make someone’s day brighter, that’s good. I want to give kids a smile to start and end their day.”

Sara Miller is a reporter for the Kitsap News Group. She can be reached at