The real Santa Claus

But he is not the REAL Santa I protested! I can’t believe that my mom was trying to take me to see the fake Santa at Mid City Shopping Center in Portsmouth VA.  For years, my mom would take my brother and I to Miller and Rhodes in Richmond VA to visit the real Santa Claus; of course there was always the local mall Santa, but he was just Santa’s helper. The real Santa required a trip to Richmond, about and hour and a half away where we would wait in line for what seemed hours to see the Snow Queen and Santa. Thanksgiving was over and it was time to put up the Christmas decorations. This required getting the big box out of the attic and watching my dad go through each and every light bulb, trying to get them to light. My dad refused to buy new light bulbs. He would flick the light bulbs with his middle finger until the filament would re-fuse itself and light. His finger would grow numb by the end of this exercise. Back in those days, we used what I called the mongo light bulbs for the outside of the door. Our family color was blue. We would put up the Christmas tree, but my mom, being an artist was meticulous about the decorating of it. She would take the tinsel and separate it so that she only would allow one strand to be applied in only the most appropriate locations. It seemed to take 6 hours to decorate our tree. Many of the times, we had to rob branches from the back and drill holes in the trunk to arrange them so that they filled in bare spots in the front. I remember one tree that refused to stand upright. My dad had to use fishing line to tie it to two corners of the walls to keep it from falling over. There was also the felt NOEL door hanger that was hung on the outside of the front door that I believe my mom made. Every window had to have a candle in it as well. Decorations back then were simple. Nobody tried to outdo City Hall with their personal Christmas display. One Saturday after Thanksgiving, my mom would inform us that today was the day that we were going to visit the real Santa in Richmond. My brother and I knew what was expected. My mom laid out our Sunday best to meet Santa. Unlike Sunday mornings, we didn’t argue when it came time to get dressed in all of these fancy clothes. My mom would get all dressed up as well, wearing her long dress coat with the fur collar. The drive to Richmond seemed like it took an eternity. We could tell we were getting close when the tall buildings would appear in the distance, outlining the city. Finding a parking space was always a challenge as downtown Richmond, our state capital was a flurry with holiday shoppers. I remember that this Saturday, there was a light snow falling which made the whole experience seem magical. Thalhimers was directly across from Miller and Rhodes. Both stores were anchors for this block. Thalhimers had a water fountain in the atrium that flowed out of some sort of statue. The water seemed to be scented with perfume, but even with all of it’s beautiful displays, Santa was across the street at Miller and Rhodes. We parked the car and all bundled up, my mom took us across the street into the store. We had to go upstairs to see Santa. Santa’s village was decorated to look like the North Pole. There was fake snow everywhere with gingerbread houses and elves to direct the kids and parents towards the line to see Santa. The line seemed to wind around Santa’s village for miles. I remember waiting to see Santa, preparing what I was going to say to him. This made the time go by faster. Eventually, we could make out Santa, sitting in his golden chair. Every child was dressed in their best outfit. After what seemed like and eternity, there were only a few kids waiting before me, but the line behind me still wound through the store for what seemed like forever. We were up next. First, the beautiful Snow Queen met us and talked with us for a moment, to ask how we were doing. I just stared at her in amazement. She was in this beautiful satin dress and seemed to be from some frozen part of the world where all is good and sparkly. Santa motioned to me and my brother, “Come on over boys, my how big you are. How are you Gill and Drew?” My mouth dropped open. Santa knew our names. This WAS the real Santa. Typically, Drew got to sit on Santa’s knee since he was the younger. Santa asked what we wanted and all I could do was to stare at him. Nothing came out of my mouth. I was frozen. He knew my name. Santa motioned to the Snow Queen, and before I knew it, a camera flashed, my brother was set down and we were on our way headed down the line to meet my mom. “How was it? Did you tell Santa what you wanted for Christmas?” she asked. “Uh, yeah.” was all that I could manage to say. She led us around Santa’s village and of course she had to do some shopping until we could go to Santa’s Palace where we would have lunch with Santa and the Snow Queen. I don’t remember what we ate or the ride home. I was still mesmerized that Santa knew my name. He was the REAL Santa. Years later, one of the Snow Queens wrote a book about her experience at Miller & Rhodes. There were only a few Snow Queens. Most of them were college age girls who looked forward to playing this part that they would return each Christmas to see the wonder in the eyes of all of the children. I found out later, that it was the Snow Queen that had a hidden microphone in her outfit and that her greeting to us before we sat on Santa’s knee was to inquire as to our names. Santa on the other hand had an earpiece to hear the names that the Snow Queen would find out from us. I never put two and two together. It was a magical experience for those of us that lived in VA and would make our pilgrimage to Richmond each year. I would eventually discover who Santa really was, but I think I was the only kid who was in the 5th grade that still believed in Santa. My parents did a great job keeping the magic alive as my dad would hook up fishing line all through the house to some bells outside. He would yank the string behind the couch to make the bells ring which would cause absolute fear in me and my brother. Eventually, the indoor malls took over and the downtown slowly eroded as many downtown areas do. You would never know that the area used to be a bustling activity of Christmas shoppers and young children on their mother’s coat tails going from store to store. Miller & Rhodes and Thalhimers are no longer there, just empty boarded up 6 story grand old brick facades of what used to be. I have so many great memories of our trips to Richmond to visit the real Santa. I felt very privileged to make the trek each year. I kind of felt sorry for those kids that only had the experience of the mall Santa. Back at school I would tell everyone how I visited the real Santa and my friends, who had figured out who Santa really was would simply roll their eyes and go, “Sure, you met the real Santa. Ha! I can’t believe you don’t know.” I would always walk away wondering, “Know what?” while scratching my head. Oh well, the magic of Christmas isn’t meeting the real Santa, but the one who was born, that is the reason that we celebrate this time of year. My brother gave me the best present a brother could ever give, he introduced me to someone better than Santa, Jesus Christ, and guess what he knows my name!

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