Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

A collection of creative creches showcased in Faribault December 12, 2017

SEVERAL YEARS AGO, in a holiday funk, I opted to minimize my decorating. I’d get a Christmas tree and maybe set out a few other festive items. Mostly, though, I didn’t care. And I figured no one else would care either.

How wrong that assumption.

 

The Nativity set handcrafted by my maternal grandfather.

 

When the grown kids returned home for Christmas, they noticed the absence of the Nativity scene handcrafted by their great grandpa. It went up every year during their childhoods. Tradition, so it seems, holds value based on the protests of my offspring.

I never made the mistake again. The barn sawed, nailed and painted by my grandfather and the plaster of Paris baby Jesus, his parents and ensemble always go on display now. They should, given the reason for Christmas.

 

A holiday banner flags a light post next to the Paradise Center for the Arts.

 

 

 

The memory of that faux pas surfaced when I stopped recently at the Paradise Center for the Arts in historic downtown Faribault. I wanted to see the current (through December 22) gallery exhibit, Kathleen Putrah’s Creche Exhibition.

 

 

The show features samples from the rural Faribault woman’s 150 Nativity sets collected around the world.

 

 

Additionally, a Christmas tree holds some 700 ornaments accumulated by Putrah.

 

 

 

 

It’s an impressive collection, especially the uniqueness of some pieces. Never before have I seen the Holy Family portrayed as apes, an interpretation I found odd.

 

A painting by Adele Beals presents the traditional interpretation of the Nativity.

 

I’m more of a traditionalist.

 

 

 

 

But that’s the thing about art. It opens the doors to creative interpretation, both to the artist and to the art appreciator.

 

FYI: The Paradise Center for the Arts, 321 Central Avenue North, is open from noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday – Saturday and until 8 p.m. Thursdays. The creche exhibit runs through December 22.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Up close with Santa & his Santa Mobile in southern Minnesota December 11, 2017

 

IN ALL MY YEARS of writing, I’ve never interviewed Santa. That changed after I spotted Santa’s wheels recently in the parking lot of a Faribault retailer. I grabbed my camera and photographed the cherry red Cadillac marked by SANTA 1 vanity license plates and an array of festive adornments.

But I needed more. I needed to learn the identity of Santa and hear his story.

 

This sticker on the Santa Mobile led me to Dave Kelley.

 

So I phoned 75-year-old Dave Kelley, a professional Santa since 2010 with the help of his wife, Judi. The couple was doing laundry and baking cookies on the mid-week morning I called their Eagle Lake home. Even Santa needs to catch up after a busy weekend. Dave’s gigs average 35 – 45 a holiday season at company gatherings, private parties, senior citizen homes, daycare centers, charity events and more in a region of southern Minnesota stretching from Fairmont to the Twin Cities. On the day I saw the Santa Mobile, Dave appeared at Faribault Harley Davidson.

 

Dave Kelley, aka Santa, photographed during his recent visit to Faribault Harley Davidson. Photo courtesy of Faribault Harley Davidson.

 

In our lengthy conversation, this retiree’s love of and satisfaction in being Santa shone as bright as Rudolph’s shiny red nose. His satisfaction comes in meeting people’s expectations of Santa. “There is no such thing as Santa,” Dave says, explaining rather that he is the personification of Santa, of all the lore and stories and individual expectations people hold.

Yet, if a child asks whether he’s the real Santa, this great grandfather replies without hesitation, “Yes, I am.”

 

It took the Kelleys five years to get the SANTA 1 plates previously licensed to someone else. Throughout his life, Dave has worked a wide variety of jobs from farmer to lawyer to pet store owner to safety adviser at a manufacturer and more. When he tried on a Santa suit for the first time in 2009, he liked it. That led him to become a professional Santa.

 

He looks, he notes, like a Nordic Santa, the Coca Cola Santa, not a polished plastic Hollywood version. And that appeals to Minnesotans. Because he looks like Santa even without his hair styled, his beard curled or his red suit, Dave always stays in character. It wouldn’t do, he says, for an impressionable child to see Santa drinking a beer at a restaurant or to hear Santa using bad language.

Take the time Dave and Judi were vacationing in Key West. A family approached them on the beach, their son wanting to meet Santa. Five years later, the now 10-year-old boy still calls the Kelleys several times a year to inquire about the reindeer or Mrs. Claus or whatever.

 

 

Dave’s thoughtful approach to playing Santa impresses me. Rather than tower over children, he gets down to their level. And rather than booming the traditional ho, ho, ho, which he says are “hard sounds,” he uses the more gentle Merry Christmas accompanied by a chuckle.

He aims to be unintimidating, gentle, kind and pleasant. “Santa can never be grumpy.”

Even when the kids are grumpy, this Santa maintains his composure. He refuses, he says, to be part of photos that will traumatize a terrified and crying child. Sometimes he can duck into a photo unnoticed while a parent holds a child. If not, he won’t, suggesting instead that the parent wait a year and try again.

 

 

He has a little fun with kids questioning the existence of Santa. Dave seeds doubt in their minds, telling them Santa gives underwear and socks to those who don’t believe. Likewise, he’ll nudge kids toward kindness, toward thinking about more than what they want under the Christmas tree. “Would you like me to bring something for your sister, too?” he sometimes asks.

While interacting with more than 2,000 kids each holiday brings Dave joy, his time with seniors in memory care units brings him the deepest joy. There’s nothing, he says, like taking these elderly to a place they haven’t been in 65 years—back to memories of Santa.

 

The Merry Christmas signage and the antlers don’t go onto Santa’s car until Thanksgiving Day. Dave decks out his car just for fun, not necessarily to advertise.

 

His work as a professional Santa allows him to go places, too, to afford a nice winter trip out of Minnesota with Judi. Dave welcomes the much-needed retreat after weeks of engagements and hundreds of miles traveled in his decked out Santa Mobile.

 

FYI: Click here to learn about Dave Kelley and other “real bearded” Santas in Minnesota at Internet Home of the North Star Santas.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Ringing bells for charity & bonus holiday events December 8, 2017

 

RINGING BELLS for the Salvation Army stretches beyond simply accepting donations for a charity that does good in my community. It’s also an opportunity to bring joy to someone needing something as basic as a friendly greeting and a warm smile.

When I ring, I make eye contact with everyone approaching me. Not because I want to guilt anyone into giving. Rather, I want to welcome them with a smile, a good morning/afternoon and, most often, a Merry Christmas. That’s my nature, to be friendly. Whether an individual can, or chooses to, give, remains their personal choice. I understand the finances of the senior citizen who apologized for not giving, citing limited Social Security income and mounting medical bills. He didn’t have to explain. Those who can and want to give, will.

 

Randy and I rang bells together from 8 a.m. – 10 a.m. Saturday, December 2, took a half hour break and then returned to ring bells solo at two locations for another two hours. A lack of bell ringers led us to pull a double shift. Donations on December 2 totaled $3,965 in Rice County, surpassing the $2,500 match by an anonymous donor. Of that county-wide total, $2,620 was dropped into red kettles in Faribault.

 

For the first time ever in my seasons of ringing bells, I watched as a woman emptied the bulging contents of her coin purse into the red kettle. Her gift meant as much as that of a 40-something guy who dropped a few coins in the slot and remarked that every coin counts. He’s right. From the $20 donation to the $1 bills and pennies shoved in by children, every gift holds value to help someone in need.

 

Two girls give to the Red Kettle Campaign during a past holiday season. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I am grateful for the generosity in the Faribault community ($2,620 on December 2) and especially for those young parents who parcel coins and bills into the hands of their little ones. When one of those children asked to ring the bell on Saturday, I obliged. That sparked an idea. Maybe next year I will hand the bell to every kid who donates and offer them a chance to ring for a moment. And I’ll continue with my tradition of handing out candy kisses to youth.

I will continue also to greet those I meet with friendliness, even if some react with unkindness, something I experienced for the first time this year. The meanness won’t deter me. I am determined to keep a positive attitude, to do the best I can as a volunteer, as a human being, to extend kindness to those I greet while stationed at the red kettle. If my smile can brighten one person’s day, then I am grateful.

FYI: If you are interested in volunteering with the Red Kettle Campaign in Rice County, call (507) 334-0639 or email faribaultbellringer at gmail.com, northfieldbellringer at gmail.com or lonsdalebellringer at gmail.com, depending on location. You can also sign up online at this link: http://www.signupgenius.com/go/4090f4dacab2faafd0-2017

Bell ringers are desperately needed as the local chapter strives to reach its goal of $50,000. As of Monday, donations totaled $10,478, according to Ed Little, co-chair of the local Red Kettle Campaign. Last Saturday in Rice County, an anonymous donor matched donations with a $2,500 gift. On December 15 and 16, an anonymous donor will once again match county donations, this time up to $5,000.

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LOOKING FOR SOMETHING to do in Faribault this weekend?

 

Skaters from Shattuck-St. Mary’s Figure Skating Center of Excellence presented a Christmas Spectacular on Ice in 2016. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo. They’ll skate this Saturday during the Campus Christmas Walk.

 

The Faribault Woolen Mill hosts a Holiday Open House from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Saturday featuring gourmet goodies, give-aways, store specials and more. Bring a Toys for Tots donation and get a free gift.

Pop into the historic Farmer Seed and Nursery to view the many beautiful themed Christmas trees with ornaments available for purchase. The store opens at 8 a.m. Saturday, closes at 5 p.m.

 

In the Shumway Hall entry hall, carolers sing for Christmas Walk guests in 2016. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

On the east side of Faribault, Shattuck-St. Mary’s School opens its campus to the public for the annual Campus Christmas Walk. The Saturday event begins at noon with a free Figure Skating Holiday Show in the sports complex. Following that, from 1 – 3 p.m., enjoy hot chocolate and cookies and ornament making and cookie decorating in Morgan Refectory. Nearby, Santa and Mrs. Claus will be at The Inn from 1 – 4 p.m. Stop at Shumway Hall between 1 – 3 p.m. for a sleigh ride. And then end your campus visit by taking in the half hour Holiday Concert in the Chapel of the Good Shepherd beginning at 3 p.m.

 

One of the many creches from the collection of Kathleen Putrah now on display at the Paradise.

 

Pop into the Paradise Center for the Arts in Faribault’s historic downtown from 1 – 4 p.m. Saturday to shop at the Winter Farmer’s Market for locally-grown/raised produce/meats, baked goods and more. Also check out the work of local artists available for purchase in the PCA gift shop during the Holly Days Sale. Don’t miss the display of creches in the art gallery. And in the evening, take in “Coconuts and Mistletoe,” a holiday play performed by the Paradise Community Theatre beginning at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. In this comedy, Santa conspires with spies to save Christmas.

In between all those events, be sure to shop at the the many home-grown businesses in our community.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Beyond recent headlines, my thoughts on domestic violence December 7, 2017

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Statistics on a The Clothesline Project t-shirt from the Minnesota Coaltition for Battered Women. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Assault by strangulation charged in 3 separate incidents

Alleged assault leaves woman with fractured hip

The headlines, written within five days of each other, recently bannered the second page of my local newspaper, the Faribault Daily News.

From the bold headers, my eyes moved down to the copy that told of hands and belt around necks, black eyes, punches and threats and stalking and, finally, that push resulting in a broken hip.

 

A portrait of Barb Larson by Faribault artist Dana Hanson. Barb was shot and killed by her ex-husband just before Christmas 2016 inside the Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism office where she worked. Her death rocked my community. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

The news stories are difficult to read. Such violence perpetrated upon another human being seems unfathomable. Yet, it happens every day. Here in my community of Faribault. And in your community, too.

I am thankful none of these women died. They easily could have given the choking, the hits, the pushes and punches and more. Already in Minnesota this year, 21 people have been murdered due to domestic violence. Let’s call it what it is—murder. The term domestic violence has always seemed to me to diminish the crime.

 

Margie Brown Holland and her unborn daughter, Olivia, were honored in The Clothesline Project coordinated by the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women. Margie was the daughter of my former neighbor in Faribault. She and her unborn baby were murdered by her husband. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Semantics aside, we need to understand that domestic violence is pervasive in our society. And we need to understand that domestic abuse and violence are rooted in power, control and manipulation. The abuse often begins insidiously. That guy who seems initially charming early on in a relationship emerges as a controlling narcissist. He twists and turns words and situations to his advantage, to make himself look good, to degrade women, to get his selfish way, to gain power. He’ll lie, belittle, intimidate, mimic, isolate and the list goes on. He’ll never accept responsibility for his actions. The woman is to blame. Not him. So he claims.

But she isn’t to blame. No woman deserves psychological, spiritual, emotional, mental, financial, technological or physical abuse. Ever. We as a society need to recognize that.

We need also to stop blaming women for staying in relationships with abusers. We need to believe these women, support them, protect them, help them. I’m tired of abusers who get second and third chances—until they seriously injure or kill someone. Enough.

 

Reasons she stays, published on page 18, of She Stays, a book by HOPE Center (Faribault) Director Erica Staab. Text copyright of Erica Staab.

 

Leaving an abuser seems simple enough. Just walk away, right? It’s not that easy when someone is controlling you, monitoring you (including cell phone usage), threatening you in subtle, and not so subtle, ways. Fear, and “love,” hold great power.

 

Profound words for anyone who’s been abused or known someone who’s been abused or is in an abusive relationship. These words are from the book, The Help. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

For those of you in any type of abusive relationship, I encourage you to take that first bold step of confiding in someone you trust whether a friend, family member, co-worker, neighbor, clergy, advocate or whomever. Once you’ve done that, devise a safe plan to permanently leave your abuser. You are in greatest danger when you attempt to leave the person abusing you.

 

 

Turn to professionals. Within every county, if not community, you will find professionals (advocates in women’s shelters and resource centers) trained to help. You are so worth it. Don’t wait for fingers to press upon your airway, for hands to push you to the ground, for fists to blacken your eyes. Trust your gut and yourself. Get out. You deserve to live your life free of abuse. You are stronger than you think, stronger than the person who thinks he owns you.

To those women in my county who were allegedly assaulted, threatened and/or stalked by Michael, Triston, Mason, John, Richard and Jeremiah, I hope this marks a new beginning for you free of abuse. I hope, too, that the criminal justice system works for you. Stop believing your abuser’s lies. Believe in yourself and in your strength.

 

FYI: If you are in an abusive relationship and in immediate danger, call 911.

Texting 911 is now available in Minnesota (and other states), a service which will be especially valuable to victims of domestic violence who are unable to safely call for help. Read all about that new service by clicking here.

Note: I realize that men can also be victims of domestic abuse and violence. But because the majority are women, I wrote this post from their perspective.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

An unexpected package from Santa December 6, 2017

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WHEN A SMALL PACKAGE arrived in my mailbox on Tuesday with a Merry Christmas! From: Santa Faribault, MN 55021 return address, I had no clue what I would find therein.

But, oh, the sweetness of this surprise moved me to tears at the thoughtfulness of the mysterious Santa who clearly read my recent post, “Passing a love of books onto the next generation.” In that post I reference a favorite childhood storybook, Three Billy Goats Gruff, and my regret at not purchasing a copy spotted at a Pequot Lakes antique shop.

 

 

That reader took my post to heart and sent me a vintage copy of Three Billy Goats Gruff. See why I’m thrilled with this unexpected gift. This individual gifted me with a book that I hold dear.

 

 

Now, rereading this story as an adult, I like it even more:

I’m not afraid,” said Little Billy. And up onto the bridge he ran—trip-trippety-trip!

 

 

This fairy tale of three billy goats attempting to cross a bridge under which a mean troll lives inspires bravery. The trio outwits the troll and gets safely to the other side and a hillside of lush grass. The empowering message of strength and courage proves as applicable for children as for adults.

 

 

As to the identity of Santa, I have only a few clues—the name NANCY ANN OLSON stamped inside and that Faribault postmark and return address. I don’t know any Nancy Olsons. The giver could be someone other than an Olson. Or it could be Nancy. I have no idea.

But to you, dear anonymous Santa reader, please know that your gift of Three Billy Goats Gruff touched me deeply. I am grateful for your kindness, which truly exemplifies the spirit of giving. Thank you. And Merry Christmas!

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A look at Christmas past & more inside the Alexander Faribault house December 5, 2017

 

FROM THE EXTERIOR, the simple wood-frame house set atop a hill along Minnesota State Highway 60 in Faribault could pass as just another old house. A porch fronts the house where green shutters flank windows. Nothing remarkable makes this place stand out—except the sign out front.

 

 

Pause to read that marker and you’ll learn this house was home to town founder Alexander Faribault from its construction in 1853 to 1856 when Faribault and his wife, Mary Elizabeth, and their children moved east across town.

 

“We send you all our best Respects…your truly friends Alex Faribault”

 

On a window sill in the dining room.

 

The parlor.

 

Every December the Rice County Historical Society hosts a weekend Christmas Open House in the building that once served as a home, post office, church, school, hotel, meeting place, store and community center. That annual affair adds an elegant flair in the style of French-Canadian holiday traditions. Alexander Faribault’s father, Jeane-Baptiste, was French-Canadian, his mother a Dakota. Like his father before him, Alexander was a fur trader.

 

 

 

While touring the home Saturday afternoon, I noted how a finely set dining table layered with a crocheted tablecloth and centered by a candied apple centerpiece brought such elegance to this aged home with planked wood floors. In the simplest of surroundings, layers of plates, fine silver and goblets presented a festive and impressive setting.

 

 

 

 

 

Holiday décor aside, the authenticity of everyday life in the 1850s remains. Here, straw pokes through bedding. Handmade quilts drape trunk and beds. Kerosene lanterns punctuate furniture. Vintage portraits hang on walls. Horsehair cushions soften chairs.

 

An embroidered linen draped in an upstairs bedroom.

 

 

 

It is humbling to walk through this house, to consider the history made here in meetings, in discussions, in entertaining, in living within these walls as a family.

 

 

 

My community began here, in this spot along the Straight River, in this house built by a fur trader. Though unremarkable in outward appearance, this house holds the essence of a town that grew from humble beginnings into a thriving city that still values its French heritage.

 

BONUS PHOTOS:

The second floor showcases additional Faribault history including that of local businesses like the Brand Peony Farm…

 

…and these chairs crafted by Peterson’s Art Furniture Co.

 

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Lighting up the holiday season in Faribault December 3, 2017

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Among the units in Faribault’s first-ever Parade of Lights holiday parade, this beautiful sleigh.

 

HOLIDAY ACTIVITIES DEFINED the weekend for me in Faribault. From ringing bells for the Salvation Army for four hours to lunching at a church craft and bake sale, to buying a Christmas tree to touring an art gallery nativity display to shopping the Faribault Winter Farmers’ Market to touring the historic Alexander Faribault house to viewing Faribault’s first lighted holiday parade, my Saturday was jam-packed. But what fun to get into the Christmas spirit right here in my community.

 

Crowds gather along historic Central Avenue for the Parade of Lights as the sun sets.

 

While vehicles were banned from the parade route, one driver headed south on Central directly toward the parade just as it began. She was directed off the roadway.

 

Parked on a side street just off Central, this Chavis Vacuum & Sewing Center truck awaits the start of the parade.

 

Local merchants showcase the holiday spirit in window displays.

 

 

Large groups of people congregate outside Burkhartzmeyer Shoes for the parade. Co-owner Bruce Burkhartzmeyer served as parade grand marshal.

 

I especially delighted in the 20-minute holiday parade along Central Avenue in our historic downtown. As the sun slipped into darkness Saturday evening, families and others gathered to watch trucks and cars and floats roll by in bright holiday lights. Snowmen, penguins, elves, candy canes, Christmas trees and more incorporated into the units added holiday cheer. Kids scrambled for candy tossed by those dressed in festive attire.

 

This classic vintage pick-up truck decorated by Brushwork Signs rated as one of my favorite parade entries.

 

Students from Shattuck-St. Mary’s School in Faribault march in the parade, their holiday lights blurred by my camera shooting in too-low light conditions. Still, I like the results, showing motion.

 

Lots of snowmen on floats, but not a flake of snow on the ground.

 

Faribault’s sweet version of the Polar Express.

 

An oversized vacuum cleaner promotes as local vacuum cleaner store.

 

I loved this Parade of Lights, part of Faribault’s first-ever Winterfest which began on Thursday. And based on the crowds, they shared my enthusiasm. I could sense the excitement, heard the positive comments, felt the energy of a community embracing the joy of the season.

 

A Faribault fire truck follows police cars as a lead in the parade.

 

Kids await candy tossed from those walking alongside floats.

 

A city of Faribault snowplow ablaze in lights.

 

To those who organized this event (the Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism, Faribault Main Street and local businesses) and to those who participated in the parade, thank you. You brought the Christmas spirit into the heart of our downtown, into our community, into the hearts of those gathered on a balmy December evening in southeastern Minnesota.

 

The back of the parade as it heads north along Central Avenue in downtown Faribault.

 

I expect the Parade of Lights to be back next year with even more entries and an even larger crowd.

 

Note: Check back for more stories featuring some of the holiday activities I enjoyed on Saturday in Faribault.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling