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Always Santa 

Visiting a legend who lives Christmas year-round.

Inside Santa Land, silver posts hitched with red velvet cordons jut up from an idle sea of gray carpet. Mechanical toy bears, reindeer and other creatures of the forest sway along a whimsical shore of make-believe snow. Christmas trees and icicle lights trim each wall. At the front of the room is Santa’s stage. It looks like a television studio set, decorated as any living room might be at the holidays, with garlands, wreaths and presents.

Santa appears comfortable in his plush, green wing-back chair. The Snow Queen, dressed in a white gown and tiara, rests her blond head on the side of a similar chair a few feet away. A worker dressed as an elf sits on a stool before a faux fireplace. The rows of chairs in front of the stage are empty. Other than Santa, the Snow Queen and elf, a dozen or so holiday staffers mill about the room. They’re here to assist with photographs, videos and cash registers. Time with Santa is free, but keepsakes cost between $18 and $27.

Soon enough, a family of four sisters and their five children appear, breaking the sleepy stillness. They drive from Virginia Beach to Richmond each year to see Legendary Santa. Today, they were caught in traffic and missed Santa’s grand entrance. Already the children have visited with Santa and shared what’s on their Christmas lists, but they’ve returned after lunch. It’s slow and Santa promised he’d repeat his arrival for them.

Nine sets of eyes fix on the stage. Little ones bite their lips and point, grown-ups bob babies in their laps. Santa’s audience waits.

“Snow Queen, let’s go check on the reindeer up on the roof and make sure they’re not getting wet,” Santa says. The two exit the stage through a door. In minutes, the familiar sound of jingling quiets the huddle of revelers. Black boots descend from the belly of the fireplace. Santa’s feet wiggle in midair as he works to dislodge himself from the chimney. He hits his head on the mantle and emerges with a hearty laugh and outstretched arms.

“There are Santa’s babies!” he exclaims. “You’re looking so good. Tell me, are you getting ready for Christmas?” he asks. Santa sinks into his chair, taking a small microphone in his hands. “Santa loves smiles. Can I see some of yours?” The moms beam, the children smile sheepishly. An infant cries. “One more question,” says Santa: “Has anyone been bad?” Heads shake and voices call out, no.

Three children and two teenagers take the stage and flock around Santa for a picture. “Smile at the star,” a cameraman instructs. As the mothers discuss how many prints they want, the children hop down from the stage. A boy cautions his sister not to run as the two duck under the red velvet ropes.

“Santa will do his best to put things next to the tree he thinks you can handle,” he calls out to them, half singing his rhetorical “Merry Christmas!”

In a flash, quiet resumes.

“Are you going to come up and talk to Santa?” Snow Queen asks a visitor. After nine years as Santa’s sidekick, she’s grown accustomed to all kinds of requests. “Santa fields all our questions,” she says.

Santa calls a reporter by name, a trick he learned long ago, he says, by listening to the right people at the right moment. He dons the famous fuzzy red suit and beard for the season, he says, but he wears the role year-round. “I am Santa to everyone, all the time,” he explains.

Just this week a woman and her sister brought their children to see Santa. Their mother was with them, too. After the children visited with Santa, the woman approached him. “She got down on her knees and said, ‘Santa, I’m pregnant and my mother doesn’t know it,’” he recalls. He asked her, “Where is your mother?” When she pointed, Santa called the woman by name and asked her to come to him. He took her hand and said: “I’ve got a special Christmas present for you. You’re going to be a grandmother again.” Santa says the mother and daughter both cried with joy. He’s brought couples together, too, by helping spark proposals. “People share with Santa everything,” he says.

His program today is exactly the same as it’s always been. In a half-century the only things that have changed, he insists, are toys. “I’m seeing the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the kids who were in the first pictures that I had,” he says. “I’m not upset over it, but I know that sooner or later it’s got to end for me. Until then, the blessings I have, pictures I have, memories I have — they keep coming,” he says, spying a group of children in the doorway. He waves the youngsters in, his silvery eyebrows arch in delight, and he asks, “What do you wish for?” S

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