Tuesday, December 22, 2009

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

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

Every year at Christmas, those stores became magical as they transformed into winter wonderlands, destinations for thousands of Virginia residents who traveled to Richmond to look in awe at animated displays inside the huge plate-glass windows, and visited inside for shopping, dining, or to visit Santa.

It was an annual event as my mother would dress up my sister and me in our Christmas dresses that she had sewn, usually matching miniature versions of hers and usually velvet, bundled us in our coats, white furry muffs and hats, and off we would go along with our Aunt Ruth for a special day in downtown Richmond.

Once downtown, we joined the crowds standing on the sidewalk and watched awe-struck as the animated, moving soldiers, woodland bears, miniature trains, animated dolls, and busy elves in workshops moved and twirled. Each window had a different theme. The two stores would compete with one another for the most entertaining and elegant windows ... and the public was the richer for it.

Entering the department stores was a holiday wonder 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, so real-looking that many of us grew up thinking he was the real deal. His whiskers were real, 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 Santa come down the large chimney behind his chair. The noisy crowd would shush when the snow queen or elf would alert everyone that it was almost time for Santa so to listen for his sleigh bells. We would all strain our ears as we leaned in closer ... and then ever so faintly, then growing louder, sleigh bells could be heard and we would all be wide-eyed as Santa dropped down the chimney and emerged with a huge, "Ho, ho, ho! Hello, boys and girls!" Oh my goodness ... we were in the presence of the man who knew everything we had done, good and bad.

The line crawled because Santa took his time with each and every child, and he had a microphone so those in the weaving line were entertained by each conversation. Mothers fussed with their children's appearances, brushing hair, smoothing down dresses, and a last plumping of hair bows.

When my sister and I were finally at the beginning of the line -- anxious, excited, and a little scared all at the same time -- and as Santa talked with the child currently on his knee, 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 when it was our turn and we walked across the stage to his chair, she would tell him our names.

"Well, hello, Gail and Lynn!" he would boom out as we approached his chair after our long wait in line. We were always in awe. "He remembered our names!" I would say to my mother afterwards and that, in and of itself, was the main reason I believed he was he real Santa. Who else would know our names!

It was always a wonderful experience and we have photos from those years sitting on Santa's lap and passing along our Christmas wishes.

A visit with Santa was followed by lunch with him in the Miller & Rhoads Tea Room on the 5th floor. Santa's table was set up on the stage and, as moms and children from across Virginia ate, long-time Richmond entertainer Eddie Weaver would play Christmas carols on the piano. The Snow Queen and elves would sit at Santa's table, and Santa -- again wired for all to hear -- would ho-ho-ho and talk with the children sitting at tables with their parents in the packed dining room. 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 as he talked), and it never occurred to me to wonder if Rudolph has washed those paws before mixing up that cake.

The memories are rich of those years but they are the memories of a child so a few years ago I asked my mother to fill in those memories with her own. They are in the next post.

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

Christmas in Olde Richmond ... it provided wonderful childhood memories.

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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