Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Olde Richmond's Christmas of yesteryear ... holiday windows and the 'real' Santa

How I do miss the department stores of downtown Richmond from years past. The Nordstrom's of the day were two downtown department stores, Miller & Rhoads and Thalhimers, multi-story buildings that faced Broad and Grace Streets, and sold clothing, toys, household items, and more.

At Christmas, those stores seemed magical as they transformed into winter wonderlands with holiday decorations. Destinations for thousands of Virginia residents to visit, children stood outside on the sidewalk peering wide-eyed through the plate glass windows watching as animated displays moved and twirled and awed, and then visited inside for shopping, dining, and a stop to see Santa.

During my childhood, visiting downtown Richmond was an annual event for us as my mother dressed my sister and me in our Christmas outfits that she had sewn and that were matching miniature versions of hers, and usually velvet. She would bundle us in our coats, muffs, and hats, and off we would go with our Aunt Ruth, for a special day in downtown Richmond.

We stood on the crowded sidewalk with dozens of people and marveled at the moving soldiers, busy bears, circling trains, fancy dolls, forest creatures, and colorful elves moved and twirled in workshops or snowy winter white landscapes. Each window had a different theme. Miller & Rhoads and Thalheimers would compete with one another for the most entertaining and elegant windows, and the public was the richer for it.

Entering the department stores during the holidays was a wonder to my young eyes because everything was so big ... the ceilings, the bright lights, the Christmas decorations, the escalators that took us up, up, up to the floors above. My sister and I had two stops on our agenda: the toy department and Santa Land.

Miller & Rhoads had the "real" Santa, a gentleman so realistic-looking that many of us grew up thinking he was the real deal. His whiskers were natural, his Santa Land was perfect, his Snow Queen was one of the most beautiful ladies I had ever seen and, best of all, Santa remembered our names every year!

We would try to get there in time to see him come down the chimney and enter from the large fireplace behind his chair. The noisy crowd would shush when the snow queen or an elf alerted everyone that it was almost time for Santa and suggested we should listen for sleigh bells. We would all strain our ears ... lean in ... and ever so faintly, then growing louder, sleigh bells could be heard and we would all be wide-eyed as Santa would drop down the chimney and emerge with a huge, "Ho, ho, ho! Hello, boys and girls!"

Santa would wave to us all, take off his hat and hang it on the corner of his chair, then sit down in his red velvet throne of a chair. Sometimes the elf would hand him a mirror and comb, and he would groom his beard and hair, much to the delight of the packed room of children.

When he handed the mirror and comb back to the elf, it was time to see Santa. My sister and I waited, and when it was almost our turn and as Santa talked with the child just before us, the Snow Queen would chat with us and ask our names. Unbeknownst to the kids, she had a microphone and Santa had an earpiece -- we're talking a long time ago! -- and she would tell him the names of the children as they approached his chair.

"Well, hello, Gail and Lynn!" he would boom out as we walked toward him after waiting in the long line. We were always absolutely in awe. "He remembered our names," I would say afterward to my mother. He would listen to our requests and would always say, "I will do my very best." We would pose for a photo, and the elf would hand us each a candy cane as we skipped down the ramp to our waiting mother and Aunt Ruth.

It was always a wonderful experience and we have photos from those years, reminders of a time now turned into nostalgic memories.

A visit with Santa was followed by lunch with Santa in the Miller & Rhoads Tea Room on the fifth floor where his table was set up on the stage. Long-time Richmond entertainer Eddie Weaver would play Christmas carols on the piano ... or was it an organ? The Snow Queen and elves would sit at Santa's table and, as they ate their lunch, Santa would carry on a conversation with the children in the room eating lunch with their parents. Afterward, everyone got a piece of Rudolph's cake. Santa would always explain that Rudolph made it himself, mixing it with his paws (he demonstrated with his hands as he talked). It was a once-a-year treat to eat in the grown-up tea room.

I took my own children to visit the "real" Santa before Miller & Rhoads ceased to exist. The photos are priceless, showing my kids sitting on the knee of the same Santa I visited as a child.

I have a child's limited memory of it all and so during Christmas of 2008 I asked my mother to flesh out the memories. She wrote them for me and they are in the next post.

Christmas in Olde Richmond with Miller & Rhoads, Thalheimers, the holiday store windows, the "real" Santa ... it provided wonderful childhood memories that have lasted a life time.

Next: Mom shares her memories of taking my sisters and me to visit the "real" Santa throughout the years in downtown Richmond....

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