I believed in Santa Claus for a long time. A very long time. Far longer than most kids.
Because each year at Christmastime, I saw the “real” Santa. And the real Santa was not your average mall Santa.
The real Santa knew my name.
The Magic of Christmas
Well-known to native Richmonders like myself, Legendary Santa was a staple at the former Miller & Rhoads department store in the heart of the city’s downtown district from my mother’s post-WWII childhood right through my own youth. And for decades, children traveled far and wide, from Virginia and beyond, to see him.
Upon Santa’s arrival, the entire city was resplendent in Christmas decor. Extravagant holiday window displays adorned storefronts lining the streets of downtown. Bruce the Spruce, a cheeky talking Christmas tree, never ceased to fascinate me. And the entire 7th floor of Miller & Rhoads – normally vacant storage space – was transformed into a magical wonderland. Santa Land.
This was downtown Richmond in its prime. And every year my family was there to experience it.
Since lines for Legendary Santa were infamously long on the weekends, my parents took my little brother and me out of school each year to see him. This was a special treat.
Dressed in our Sunday best, we’d head downtown on a December afternoon and watch in awe as Santa came down the chimney to take his place on his gilded chair. Then we would wait not-so-patiently in line for our turn to sit on his lap, requiring my poor, beleaguered mother to intermittently smooth our rumpled clothing, lest we look like a pair of bedraggled street urchins by the time we greeted Santa.
But first came a chat with his Snow Queen – an ethereal young woman who always struck me as incredibly sophisticated even though, in hindsight, she couldn’t have been more than twenty.
Next, we would have our picture taken with Santa himself. By an elf. Despite the absurdity of this, my mom still has every picture we ever took with Santa Claus.
Afterward, we would dine with Santa and his entourage in the renowned Miller & Rhoads Tea Room while watching famed Richmond performer Eddie Weaver play Christmas tunes on the organ, piano, or quite often, both at the same time.
But the highlight of these annual excursions downtown was our visit with Santa himself. Because the true magic of Legendary Santa – the thing that made him so real - lie in the fact that he somehow knew every child’s name.
As we waited our turn with the Snow Queen, my brother and I would watch with anticipation as Santa waved goodbye to his previous charges and turned his attention toward us. “Kristin and Justin!” he would bellow. “Come on over here and see ‘ol Santa!”
As a child, that moment defined the magic of Christmas. Santa knew my name.
Miller & Rhoads is gone now. It went out of business in 1990, along with its neighbor and friendly rival, Thalhimer’s.
The closing of both stores dealt a blow to downtown’s consumer center which, despite several revitalization attempts, never quite recovered. The area fell into disrepair and Christmastime in downtown Richmond was no longer a resplendent affair. Where holiday window displays once delighted city-goers, now there are mostly boarded-up storefronts; a sad reminder of what used to be.
And at some point, I stopped believing in Santa Claus.
I’m not quite sure when it happened; I think it was a gradual process. During one particular lunch in the Tea Room, for instance, I sat quietly, carefully studying the Santa dining in front of me, comparing him to the Santa on whose lap I had just sat.
“He has a different nose,” I announced, eyeing Imposter Santa suspiciously.
That was the end of lunch with Santa in the Tea Room. Yes, my parents went to great lengths to keep the magic alive.
Then there was that fateful day in 5th grade when true skepticism took over. For after bragging that I’d be leaving school early that day to go see Santa Claus, a beady-eyed, freckle-faced kid named Owen said to me, “You know Santa’s not real, right?”
And the seeds of doubt began to take root.
Thanks a lot, Owen.
By the time I turned 13, I was pretty sure a fat man in a red suit didn’t break into our house in the middle of the night to bestow us with gifts; and I was fairly certain all the presents wrapped in Santa’s “signature” gift wrap had actually come from my parents. Especially since the tags bore my mom’s unmistakable immaculate handwriting.
And what of Santa Claus knowing my name? Sadly, I had begun to suspect he was wearing an earpiece connected to a hidden microphone worn by the Snow Queen. And while I’m neither confirming nor denying that this was the case, it would certainly explain why she was constantly repeating my name in an oddly emphasized fashion.
Logic applied to the fantastical quickly strips it of its magic; this was the first of several difficult truths I would learn as I transitioned from childhood to young adult. Nevertheless, I was a traditional child. And so at the age of 13, I again went to see Santa Claus, even though it felt silly at that point.
It would be my last visit with him.
For whatever reason, we didn’t go the following year. And the year after that, Miller & Rhoads closed its doors for good. I grew up, moved away from Richmond, and got married. And as the years passed, caught up in holiday stress, I remembered less and less of why I once loved Christmas so much.
Legendary Santa, meanwhile, meandered aimlessly around Richmond in the years following Miller & Rhoads’ closure. But these days, he has a new fitting home at the Children’s Museum of Richmond.
Last year, my family and I spent Christmas in Richmond, where I visited Legendary Santa for the first time since 1988 – this time with my year-old daughter. It marked the third generation of family excursions to see the “real” Santa Claus in downtown Richmond – in the 1950′s, my Nana had taken my mother and aunt to visit him each year as well.
This year, as Legendary Santa celebrates 75 years in Richmond, we will once again be “home” for the holidays to pay him a visit. I’m thrilled to be able to continue such a meaningful holiday tradition with my own daughter, and hope she’ll grow to love it as much as I did.
Suddenly, I believe in Santa Claus again.