I hurry down Sixth Street, alone, toward the familiar building, and suddenly I am surprised by tears. My heartbeat quickens.
Fifteen years ago, I held my little sisters' hands as we skipped down this same sidewalk in our shiny Mary Janes, matching smocked dresses and velvet-collared winter coats. Only surpassed in excitement by Christmas morning itself, our annual downtown visit to see Santa marked the highlight of each holiday season.
This time I am trying to prepare myself. This visit will be different from those of my childhood. It's my first visit back to the Thalhimers flagship store since it closed in 1992, and it may well be the last. You see, it is Santa's final year at the downtown Thalhimers. Because the city plans to demolish the building to make way for new development, it could be the last year it exists at all.
The windows that once held animated holiday characters frolicking around little winter-scapes are now empty. The front doors that used to welcome streams of customers are chained shut. The sign that read "Thalhimers" now reads nothing. My heart aches as I recall the vibrant scene that once graced this desolate place. My father, once executive vice president for Thalhimers, says he finds it too upsetting to visit the old store. He would not join me in this visit. "I'd rather leave the past behind, keep the memories and look towards the future," he tells me.
But I choose to briefly gaze back at the past and see what has become of an almost sacred Richmond tradition. Although Santaland exists on the second floor of the old Thalhimers building, it is reached through 6th Street Marketplace. As I stroll through the marketplace, the bridge connecting one dilapidating skeleton of downtown past to another, I feel my chest tighten. It used to be so different here. I am afraid I might cry.
And once I see Santaland I do cry, but not out of sorrow. I see two little girls in Mary Janes and red velveteen dresses skipping boisterously past me, holding hands. They spot Santa, and their golden ringlets bounce as they dash to meet him. Laughter reverberates throughout the festively decorated room while hundreds upon hundreds of children of all ages weave their way towards the Snow Queen, the Elf, and, finally, the Legendary Santa.
Santa still sits in his majestic green velvet and gold-trimmed armchair in front of the famous chimney that he comes down every morning. Snowflakes hang from the ceiling, holly and red bows garnish the mantelpiece, and, to my delight, the familiar animated bears and playful penguins from the Santaland of my memories keep the children entertained. (Later, I am told that a prior Thalhimers employee helped design the atmosphere based on his experience with the old Santaland.)
As I move about the room, each parent I encounter shares memories of visiting Thalhimers and Miller & Rhoads during seasons past. As Corinne Addison Price helps her 2-year-old daughter with her red winter coat, she says, "It feels real special to bring my kids back here. We came all the way from Northern Virginia to see the real Santa." Her sister Lynn chimes in: "I've been coming here since I was 2. We used to shop at both Miller & Rhoads and Thalhimers, see the wonderful Christmas windows, have lunch with Santa, ride the Santa train, and watch him come down the chimney no other Santa does that, you know. We even moved away for a couple years, and when we came back Santa still knew our names." The adults seem as jubilant as the children.
I begin to notice that not all adults in attendance are accompanied by little ones. Elderly couples meander around the enchanted room. Twenty-somethings stop by to catch a glimpse of the "Real Santa." Two couples, who look to be in their mid-40s, greet each other at the Santaland entrance. They laugh when I mention they are visiting Santa without children in tow. One of them, Sandi Rose, smiles as she tells me, "I've been coming downtown since the early '60s. I started bringing my son here when he was 6. He's 29 now and lives in Florida, but was excited when I told him I was visiting Santa today."
When I ask if she will visit Santa after his move from the Thalhimers store to a new home, she replies, "No matter where he ends up, I'll visit him. Hopefully, I'll be able to bring my future grandchildren to see the 'Real Santa' someday."
Robert Fleskes, marketing director of Downtown Presents, says Santa will not disappoint Rose and the thousands of other loyal visitors. So where will Santa go? "Stay tuned," he says. He assures me that Santa will remain downtown.
After all the visitors have left for the day, the Snow Queen announces to Santa that "Elizabeth is here for the Style interview." I timidly approach the jolly old man with my notebook and pen. Gingerly placing them on the floor, he guides me to sit atop his knee.
"I've been downtown for 36 years," he says. "Half of the moms and dads who come in here sat on my knee when they were kids. I have so many fond memories of seeing those boys and girls here, and will stay downtown as long as I can."
Then, before I can argue otherwise, we are immortalized by the click of a camera. And, in that instant, I smile as big as I did when I was a little
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