Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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

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An unexpected package from Santa December 6, 2017

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 5:00 AM
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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

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 5:39 PM
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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

 

Home for Christmas December 27, 2016

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 10:10 AM
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helbling-family

 

I’M AT THAT AGE of material gifts carrying minimal importance. All I want is time with those I love most.

This Christmas I received my most desired gift—having all three of my grown children back home in Minnesota. They arrived here from greater Boston, northeastern Wisconsin and as close as an hour away.

It was our first time together since June 2015. We hugged and laughed and ate too much food and delighted in our first Christmas with nearly nine-month-old baby Isabelle. Babies bring such joy in to a family.

 

christmas-grandma-and-izzy

 

I was a happy mama, a happy grandma. Two friends remarked after Christmas Eve worship services that I looked so happy with my sweet granddaughter in my arms. I was.

Now, two days later, the family is gone with the exception of the son who will be here for awhile yet. Last night, after I’d just snuggled under the covers, he came into my bedroom, bent over and kissed my cheek ever so gently. I could have cried at the tenderness of that kiss, at the overwhelming love I felt for my boy in that moment. For my family.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

My Christmas wish for you December 24, 2016

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 5:00 AM
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One of my children (probably my second daughter, Miranda) drew this baby Jesus on a card decades ago. I display that card each Christmas as a reminder of the reason I celebrate Christmas and as a reminder of how very much I love my three children.

One of my children (probably my second daughter, Miranda) drew this baby Jesus decades ago. I display this card, which also includes Mary and Joseph, each Christmas. It’s a reminder of the reason I celebrate Christmas and a reminder of how very much I love my three children. They each signed the card. It’s a treasure.

For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

MY DEAR READERS, I wish for you this Christmas the blessings of peace and happiness.

Wherever you are this weekend and with whomever, may you experience joy. Appreciate others. Hold close those you love most. Be thankful for them.

Realize that everything and everyone will not be perfect. So laugh instead of stressing. You’ll feel better.

Relax and delight in the moments—the hug of a son come home, the sweet scent of a baby on her first Christmas, the gathering of family at worship services and around your table.

These are the moments that matter. Merry Christmas!

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Experiencing the spirit of Christmas at a community dinner in Faribault December 20, 2016

Despite temperatures in the double digits below zero, people braved the cold to attend the Community Christmas Dinner. Here a diner leaves the church.

Despite temperatures in the double digits below zero, people braved the cold to attend the Community Christmas Dinner. Here a diner, bundled against the frigid cold, leaves the church

OUTSIDE FOURTH AVENUE United Methodist Church, a 1990s Ford Fiesta with 300,000 plus miles idled in the bitter cold early Sunday afternoon. Indoors, brothers Tom and Joe, bellies full from a holiday meal of turkey and all the fixings, waited. They hoped their car would warm for the 15-mile ride back home to Owatonna in minus zero temps.

Volunteers plate a meal of turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, stuffing, meatballs and green beans for diners. Additionally, cranberries and Christmas Cake were on the menu.

Volunteers plate a meal of turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, stuffing, meatballs and green beans for diners. Additionally, cranberries and Christmas Cake were on the menu.

They’d driven here for the free Community Christmas Dinner served by volunteers from this Faribault congregation. Joe wondered aloud whether he’d need to eat later at an Owatonna church which serves a free meal each Sunday evening.

Stunning stained glass windows at the back of the sanctuary.

Stunning stained glass windows at the back of the sanctuary.

While the two waited, I encouraged them to step inside the sanctuary to view the beautiful stained glass windows. The brothers admired the art, Tom pointing to a smaller pane resembling one in his childhood home, the house that became his after their father’s passing. Soon, I bid them farewell, wishing them both a Merry Christmas.

Doesn't he look just like Saint Nick?

Doesn’t he look just like Saint Nick?

Back in the church basement hallway, I came face-to-face with Santa Claus. Not in his suit, but looking every bit the part with a full white beard and a twinkle in his eye. The guy (whose name I didn’t get because who asks Santa for his “real” name?) plays Santa occasionally—for his step-daughter’s special needs class. He clearly enjoys the opportunity to bring joy to these students.

Exiting the church after dinner.

Exiting the church after dinner.

Later, I observed an elderly woman climb the basement stairs, plastic bag in hand with meal left-overs inside. I watched as my husband held the door for her, stepped outside and helped her across the snow-packed sidewalk to her car.

Diners sat down to a holiday meal in the church basement.

Diners sit down to a holiday meal in the church basement.

In all three instances—in the conversations with brothers Tom and Joe, in the quick photo shoot of Santa, in the care Randy showed to the elderly woman, I experienced the spirit of Christmas. Gratitude and giving. Giving and gratitude.

This bulletin board, just inside the side entry to the church basement, proclaims holiday joy.

This bulletin board, just inside the side entry to the church basement, proclaims holiday joy.

To the many volunteers who prepare, serve and clean up after this holiday community meal, thank you. You provide more than food for the body. On this Sunday, in your church basement, you blessed me and others with Christmas joy. In conversations. In smiles. In helping hands. What a gift.

BONUS PHOTOS:

Volunteers served Christmas Cake (aka Poke Cake) and brought left-overs to the Cake Room following the meal.

Volunteers serve Christmas Cake (aka Poke Cake) and return left-overs to the Cake Room following the meal.

Slices of Christmas cake are plated and then delivered to diners on vintage trays.

Slices of Christmas cake are plated and then delivered to diners on vintage trays.

Baby Whitney with her Christmas Cake.

Baby Whitney enjoys Christmas Cake.

Holiday banners hang from basement walls.

Holiday banners add a festive flair to basement walls.

Signs posted throughout the basement welcome guests to Christmas worship services.

Signs posted throughout the basement welcome guests to Christmas worship services.

Volunteers can reach into this tub for aprons.

Volunteers can reach into this tub for aprons.

Behind the scenes, volunteers are busy washing dishes.

Behind the scenes, volunteers are busy washing dishes.

Each table is decorated with unique and festive holiday decor.

Each table is decorated with unique and festive holiday decor.

This is the view walking into the dining hall. Diners can leave a free will offering, a portion of which goes to Rice County charities.

This is the view walking into the dining hall. Diners can leave a free will offering in the basket, a portion of which goes to Rice County charities.

Christmas decorations grace a shelving unit.

Christmas decorations grace a shelving unit.

Back in the kitchen, the crew continues to work.

Back in the kitchen, the crew continues to work.

After serving ended, I spotted this food list on a table.

After serving ended, I spotted this food list on a table.

Washing tables after 210 meals were served.

Washing tables after 210 meals were served.

© 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling