Friday, December 16, 2011

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

Originally posted December 2009....

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 standing outside on the sidewalk peering through the plate glass windows watching wide-eyed as animated displays moved and twirled, and visiting inside for shopping, dining, and a stop to see Santa.

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, and then 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.

With crowds of other people, we stood on the sidewalk and watched awe-struck as the moving soldiers, busy bears, trains, dolls, forest creatures, and elves moved and twirled in workshops or snowy winter white landscapes ... each window with 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 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 large chimney 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 then 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. As my sister and I waited, 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 memories.

A visit with Santa was followed by lunch with Santa in the Miller & Rhoads Tea Room on the fifth floor. 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 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 last Christmas 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.

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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