Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Fashion thoughts, holiday & otherwise December 28, 2017

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NO ONE WILL EVER look to me for current fashion advice. I am a t-shirts in the summer, flannel shirts in the winter, zipper sweatshirt layers and blue jeans type of dresser, a bonus of working from my home office. Sure, I’ll dress up when necessary. But I prefer comfortable over fashionable.

That said, you might think I would embrace ugly holiday sweaters. But I don’t. For one reason. I can’t wear pull-over sweaters anymore. Being of a certain advancing age when my body temperature fluctuates, I can’t tolerate feeling trapped in the heat of a sweater. If it buttons, I’m OK. I can just unbutton or toss off the sweater when necessary. But otherwise, forget it.

How about you? Do you get into ugly Christmas sweaters? Let’s hear some ugly sweater descriptions and stories. Just for fun. Not because I care about fashion.

Ask my sister, who to this day reminds me of the ugly (her word, not mine) yellow dress with daisies on the bodice and a hand-me-down to her. To which I reply, “It’s not my fault I was the first-born daughter.” Had birth order been reversed, I would have been wearing her pre-worn clothing. Fashionable maybe in her eyes, but not necessarily in mine.

Fashion is, in my opinion, personal. And I have an opinion on the current trend of ripped jeans. Why would anyone pay money for jeans that belong in the rag bag?

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


A wonderful Christmas December 27, 2017

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My granddaughter, Isabelle, all fancy in her Christmas dress, decides she’s going to open one of her gifts before church services. Rules are rules, though. You have to wait until after church and dinner. She was stopped after pulling tissue from the bag. No crying occurred.


HOW WAS YOUR CHRISTMAS? I expect the question will repeat itself numerous times in the next week.

Mine was wonderful. Wonderful because nearly all the people I love most in this world celebrated Christmas with me. I missed my sweet second daughter, absent because she was on-call as a Spanish medical interpreter in eastern Wisconsin. And, yes, she was called into a Green Bay ER on Christmas Day. I’m used to her absence on holidays. I don’t like it. But I know that I am not the only mama without all of her grown children back home.


Izzy and Grandpa look at one of her many new books on Christmas Day. She’s sitting in her Izzy-sized chair from her grandparents in California.


Unless you’re fortunate enough to have all of your children (and grandchildren) living nearby (and by that I mean in the same state), you understand. We can’t always celebrate holidays together. This year while I enjoyed Christmas with my adorable 20-month-old granddaughter, her Opa and Oma in California were missing her. I know how difficult that had to be for them.


Isabelle studies the packaging from her “Daniel Tiger” character set while Uncle Caleb uses his smartphone. I love this photo, which also includes a hand-crocheted monkey I gave to Isabelle.


My son flew in from Boston, arriving in the late evening the day before Christmas Eve. Icy conditions canceled more than a dozen flights out of Logan, thankfully not his. I hadn’t seen him since August, not all that long ago. But still too long for this mama. He’ll be around until shortly after New Year’s.


Izzy and her mama (my daughter, Amber) read Good Night Minnesota one of the many new books Isabelle got for Christmas. She loves to read. Uncle Caleb gave Izzy the Curious George sweatshirt she’s wearing.


I carry now sweet Christmas memories—of gathering around the table and the Christmas tree, of worshiping together, of wrapping my arms around my lanky son, of cuddling my granddaughter, of laughing and talking and loving.


Give Izzy a book and she’s a happy girl. This Christmas book came from Kathleen in Washington. Aunt Miranda and Uncle John sent the “Mommy’s Favorite Elf” shirt from Wisconsin.


My heart is happy, brimming with memories of family love.

TELL ME: How was your Christmas?

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Christmas blessings in images & words December 24, 2017

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While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.



She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.



And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.



When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”



So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.



During the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”



After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.



Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh.




I wish for you the gifts of good health, happiness, peace, and wonderful times with family and friends. May joy and contentment ease into your days, even if you are missing loved ones or dealing with challenges. Life is a gift. And you are, too.

Merry Christmas!



Text comes from the gospels of Matthew and Luke, chapters 2.

Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling



Another Christmas with Mom December 20, 2017

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I pose with my mom for a photo during our extended family Christmas gathering several days ago at her care facility.


MORE AND MORE I am cognizant of the passage of time, of aging, of the realization that I am now in the demographic of senior citizen. I need only look at my ever graying hair and my multiplying age spots and feel the aches and pains of arthritis. I am growing old, which is a good thing if you consider the alternative.

But with my own aging comes more frequent grief. More and more I am writing sympathy cards and attending funeral home visitations and comforting friends at the loss of parents.

While my dad died in 2003, my mom is still living. I find myself more and more making sure I photograph her during our visits. She lives 2 ½ hours away. Often I ask my husband to photograph my 85-year-old Mom and me together, too. We almost lost her last winter to pneumonia, one of many critical health challenges Mom has faced during her lifetime.

But she shares the story that God told her he wasn’t ready yet for that stubborn old lady. I believe her. Mom doesn’t lie.

And so I am blessed with another opportunity to celebrate Christmas with Mom. I am thankful.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Angels we have seen on high December 15, 2017

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YEARS HAVE PASSED since I thought about this observation: The angels are baking cookies.


Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2014.


But when a family member recently noticed the gold and pink tinge of the evening sky, she suggested the cherubs were busy baking Christmas cookies.

Unless you’re a Helbling family member, you’ve likely never heard this comparison of the sunset, or sunrise, to angelic bakers. It’s an interpretation attributed to my late mother-in-law, passed on to her children and then to her grandchildren.

Many times while they were growing up, my three kids directed me to look outside, to see the fiery sky, to see the angels baking cookies. It is a sweet part of family lore passed from one generation to the next.

This time of year, traditions and stories seem more important than ever. What are some of your family stories and/or traditions? I’d like to hear.

© Copyright 2017 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


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