Visiting Santa used to be as easy as going to downtown Winona, where there was a little Santa House set upon the Plaza.
The Plaza, for those who missed this misguided era in Winona’s city planning history, was the euphemistic name for closing Third Street to traffic from Main St. to Lafayette. In theory, this would create a public gathering space. In reality, it created a public nuisance. To decorate it, they hauled in the statue of poor Princess Wenonah. There was also a kiosk where things were supposed to happen, and if I remember correctly, public bathrooms which were later closed, having become the venue of nefarious activity. The impetus for such an odd thing as to close the city’s most vibrant retail street was that downtowns, as big box stores moved to malls, were failing. Winona’s downtown, which had contracted the “urban renewal” cancer of the late sixties and early seventies, was losing some fine old architecture and fully occupied retail space, and succumbing quickly. The Plaza, rather than reinvigorating retail activity downtown, hastened its exodus. Thankfully, a plan to cover the Plaza with a roof, as was done in Mankato, never came to fruition here. But, that’s where the Santa House was located during December, in which could be found Santa, just waiting to either scare the willies out of your kids, or fulfill their every dream. You could even have a photo taken of the tots trying to escape from Santa’s lap.
This year, I received verbal reports from my children of my grandchildren’s trips to see the jolly old elf, here and in Duluth.
Harry, who is two, traveled to Duluth to go on the Fitger’s Hotel Polar Express (look up the children’s book by that name if you are not familiar). He loved the train, he loved the cocoa, and then came Santa. Harry was sitting at the table having his cocoa when Santa approached their table.
“Have you been a good boy?” Santa asked Harry.
“Um, yeah,” said Harry, probably wondering whose business it was.
“What would you like for Christmas?” asked Santa.
Harry couldn’t think, until coached by his mother, “do you want a choo choo?” He’d almost forgotten, of course he wanted a choo choo, so he told the guy in the white beard.
“Oh, good!” said Santa, “a train!” And then, maybe prompted by the Duluth Humane Society, he said, “It’s a good thing you didn’t ask for a dog, because we don’t have any puppies at the North Pole…” Uh, oh, unbeknownst to Santa, the discussion was about to turn somber.
“Brinnie dead!” said Harry. Santa looked at the adults for some guidance. “Our dog died,” they said.
“Edina dead!” said Harry, remembering not only the recent demise of the ancient rescue Weimaraner but the even more ancient rescue cat. “Our cat died, too,” said Harry’s parents sadly. Santa beat a retreat, looking for a more upbeat table.
After breakfast, Harry went shopping with his parents. They saw a Thomas the Train, which Harry fell in love with. His parents said that Thomas would make a nice Christmas gift for someone. But Harry, only two, you see, didn’t quite get the whole “be good, delayed gratification Christmas gift” cultural phenomenon.
“I buy it now!” said Harry.
“Oh, we can’t buy it now,” said his parents, “but maybe Santa will bring Thomas to you on Christmas!”
Aha! The great Christmas tradition of the Western World suddenly revealed itself to Harry. “Santa,” he yelled across the store. “Santa!” Lucky for Harry, it wasn’t too late. They found Santa sitting in his chair, and Harry reiterated his request for a train in a loud voice, so Santa wouldn’t fail to hear him as he stood at a very safe distance away.
Peyton, at five, is an old hand at Santa, and proudly told me, “I wasn’t afraid! I sat on Santa’s lap!” Her sister, who will be three in a little over a month, parroted her, “Not afraid! Sat on Santa’s lap!” They dropped by our house, dressed in their holiday finery, after having brunch with Santa in the neighborhood at Signatures restaurant.
“What did you ask Santa for?” I asked Peyton, who last time I checked wanted slippers. “Ice skates,” she replied. This was a new one to me, and my expression may have indicated such.
“I don’t know how to ice skate, but I think I will love it!” she said cheerfully. She is an optimistic little girl, and looks forward to most things with relish. I could almost see her gliding across the ice, breaking into a triple Salchow, or at least skating backwards. Then she ran off to play.
“What did Andie ask for?” I asked her parents. They said she had begun a long rambling conversation with Santa but, in order to get things moving, her mother told her, “Andie, speak clearly to Santa and ask for one thing.”
Andie thought for a moment, and turned to Santa. “Cereal!” she said, and hopped down from his lap.