The following Christmas, we found out just how festive the town got for the holidays. A big parade, starring Santa Claus, wound its way through the still-thriving downtown, and the tall balsam tree in the square was lit. People crowded the streets, children on their parents’ shoulders, eager to see the fire trucks decked out with lights, the radio station van playing Christmas music, the high school band, and the floats overflowing with bundled-up children singing Christmas carols. And right in the center of town was a little hut where children could visit Santa Claus.
My father says that he and my mother got in line with three-year-old me and waited for my turn to chat with Santa about toys and life in the North Pole (I was an inquisitive child). We got to the front of the line, and my father says that Mrs. Claus looked at my parents and then leaned down and whispered something into Santa’s ear. I ran over to Santa, and he picked me up and placed me on his knee. “Hi, Santa!” I cried.
“Well, hello! Didn’t I see you in Glens Falls, New York, last year?”
“Yes!” I replied. “We moved here last winter. I like it here. There’s a beach and the park and we have a dog…” I went on and on, chatty little girl that I was. Of course Santa knew where I was last year. He knew everything.
My parents, however, weren’t so sure. While I was making small talk with Santa, my parents were exchanging worried glances. “What the…” my father started to say, but that’s when Mrs. Claus gave him a big wink. It was then that he saw that Mrs. Claus was really Mrs. Dearborn, and order was restored to the universe. “They really had me going,” my dad always says.
So that’s how we met Santa Claus all those years ago, but it isn’t how we got to know him. That Christmas parade was nothing compared with the Christmas Village the town put on every year. Christmas Village transformed the Community Center into a Winter Wonderland. The basketball court was covered with brown paper and people spent hours stamping red paint bricks. Lights were set up to offset the yellow lighting of the gymnasium. Carpenters and artisans worked to construct Santa’s Workshop (“Elves” would turn wooden toys for children and make little personalized ornaments—I still have mine from 1977), the Gingerbread Man’s house, a Candy Cane hut, a Blacksmith’s shop, a huge Frosty the Snowman (made by my very own mother), an “Ice Rink” (the surface was white plastic and elves skated on it), and Santa’s house. Nearly the whole town would turn out for Christmas Village when it was complete. Starting in 1977 my parents were on the committee, and so for years I got to witness the creation of the magic (and was even an elf for a few years), but that never tarnished the wonder of Christmas Village.
The workmanship that went into Christmas Village was truly remarkable, especially for such a small community, but it wouldn’t have worked without our Santa. See, there was a reason why my parents were awestruck by Santa’s knowledge of my whereabouts Christmases past. Mr. Dearborn had white, flowing hair and a long, white beard. He had a soft and gentle voice, and an even softer and gentler demeanor. (He also wore very distinctive cologne. I’ve never figured out what it was, but if I smelled it today, I’d be transported back to being a three-year-old, chatting away with Santa. One summer day in his antique shop, my sister looked up at Mr. Dearborn quizzically and said, “Mr. Dearborn, you smell just like Santa Claus.”) I’ve seen many men who bear a striking resemblance to Santa Claus, but Mr. Dearborn is the only one who ever had me convinced.
I loved running around, helping to set up Christmas Village, but it always broke my heart to see it torn down. One year when I was five or six, it was just too much, and I ran to a corner and cried. As I was sitting on the floor despondent, I felt a little tap on my shoulder. There was Santa, back in his outfit. He said, “Come on, let’s go have a chat.”
We went out in the hallway and sat down on the steps. Santa asked me, “Why are you sad?”
“Because it’s over, and it was so wonderful, and I want it to stay the way it was always.”
He looked at me with that gentle gaze and said, “Well, would it be wonderful if it was always like that?”
“What do you mean?” I asked him.
“Christmas is a special time, sweetie. If it were like this always, then it would just be the way things are. You wouldn’t think it was magical. But you can keep it in your heart all year, if you want. When you are feeling sad, you can think about Christmas, and that will make you happy.”
I mulled this over and saw the wisdom in what he was saying. Wiping my nose, I said “OK. Thanks, Santa. I’ll remember.”
“Good,” he said. “Let’s go back and find your folks, shall we?”
We walked back into the Community Center, and he dropped me off with my parents with a wink and a tap to his nose.
As my sister and I grew older, my parents stopped working with Christmas Village, but we would still see Mr. Dearborn in his antique shop from time to time. When I registered to vote, Mrs. Dearborn signed me up. “Thanks, Mrs. Claus,” I said when I was finished. We chuckled and talked a bit about Christmas Village.
Some years back, Mr. Dearborn died. I was in graduate school at the time and couldn’t get back for the funeral, but the whole town turned out to mourn Santa Claus. A few years later, Mrs. Dearborn retired from her post as City Clerk. I’m not sure who the town Santa is anymore. I just like hearing my dad tell the story of how we met the real thing.