For generations both my family and Donny’s visit the real and only Santa at the Miller & Rhoads flagship store in downtown Richmond. I am lucky enough to visit Santa Bill Strother, who sells the store suits on spending money on an elaborate Santa set up. Fresh from a career in Hollywood, cut short by injury, local son at the urging of his wife, Bill applies to the store for the role of Santa. But he wants more. He has a plan. Using skills he learns in Hollywood, Bill creates a Santaland where Santa greets every child by name. The plan includes a beautiful Snow Queen seated far enough away from Santa, who sits center stage beside the chimney he has just bounded down to greet the children, leaving his reindeer, who he checks on periodically, resting on the roof. The Snow Queen greets every child waiting in the endless serpentine line and chats with them putting them at ease. Names are exchanged and via hidden mic conveyed to Santa’s also hidden ear piece.
And so with a confident booming voice, Santa summons by name the waiting child or family of children to approach his chair. He gathers the young ones on his knee, poses all for a photo, all kept straight by his faithful little elf who sits on a stool by his side. Wishes are told and Santa always says that he will do his best and maybe some surprises will be in order.
Donny & I both visit the real Santa as kids. We know the magic. It is not even a discussion that we will continue the traditional visits as we start our own family. We live in Varina, Miller & Rhoads a short car trip away. Our first born, Emily loves visiting Santa so much that we go more than once. It is during a period when interest in Santaland is waning and the line not so dauntingly long. Santaland is still popular just not the endless line waiting that could take hours to reach the Snow Queen and Santa popular. We even take Emily to see Santa on Christmas Eve one year because a friend tells me that is the time when there is no line. Few parents dare risk a last minute request to Santa that can not be fulfilled. Since Santa always promises to simply do his best and definitely bring surprises we are not worried.
And so it goes through the years until our family numbers five children all who look forward to visiting Santa and telling him their heart’s desire. Even a move to North Carolina does not deter us from our Santaland visit. One December as we make plans for the trip Emily a coed at UNC-CH by this time says, “Mom, Santa always gives us presents, we should give him something.” We embrace her idea and decide to create a photo montage out of all of our family photos through the years with Santa. We assemble the photos, put ribbon between the rows and columns and have the entire arrangement copied. We frame it, wrap it up with an added note on the back telling Santa who it is from and how much we love him.
The kids know time with Santa is very limited because everyone wants to see him, so they decide to forgo their moment to ask for special desires and use that time to bestow their gift and have Santa unwrap it. Everything goes according to plan. When it is their turn with Santa, Donny hands the present to Emily from the parents viewing section. She explains to Santa how he is always gifting everyone else and it’s his turn to receive. He opens the gift and is moved to tears. He in typical Santa mode does give the three youngest a quick moment to ask for their fondest wishes.
We pull it off. We surprise Santa. But Santa is the one with the last surprise. He calls the phone number we have included. While the family has moved to North Carolina Donny continues to work in Richmond at his family lighting store, Advance Electric Supply Company on the corner of Belvidere and Cary Street, commuting weekly.
Donny is at lunch and his secretary takes his calls. When he gets back she approaches him with an incredulous, “You got a call from Santa!” Donny gives her an oh sure I did look, “You’ve got to be kidding.” She holds her ground. “The REAL Santa.” She gives him a piece of paper, “Here’s his number.”
Donny calls the number. It really is Santa. The real Santa calling to thank us for the gift. This Santa happens to be the father of a hight school classmate of Donny’s. He never knew her Dad had a side job of such extreme importance.
We have no idea but it turns out that we have gifted Santa on what is to be the last year for Miller & Rhoads as a department store with its Santaland magic. The next year Santaland moves to rival store Thalhimers just across the street and later to the Richmond Children’s Museum where it continues to this day. It offers new magic for many. For others there are fond memories of a time woven into their hearts.