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 message for Santa & all of us December 22, 2015

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 5:00 AM
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Dear Santa message in New Ulm, 95

 

WHEN I SPOTTED THIS MESSAGE to Santa while traveling through New Ulm on Saturday en route to a family Christmas gathering, I laughed. What a humorous way to draw attention to a real estate company, I thought.

But then I thought some more about that message after reading a magazine article titled “5 times when you should hold your tongue.” The writer of the piece in Real Simple advised that diplomacy, tact and a lot of silence can go a long way. In other words, think before you speak or write.  That’s great advice.

You may think it’s your sister’s fault when, in reality, it isn’t. Perception is not always truth.

I’m a big proponent of listening. I truly believe if we all chose to listen, rather than jump to conclusions, many disagreements would never happen. But in the heat of the moment, when we feel we’ve been wronged, we fail to hear anyone’s voice but our own. That is the precise time when we need to clamp our lips, lift fingertips from keyboards and cell phones and consider that, yes, there’s another side to this story. Once hurtful words are written or spoken, they cannot be taken back.

The holidays are a great time to reconnect with family. But such gatherings can also prove stressful. Travel, too much alcohol, lack of sleep, changes in routine, strong personalities, perceived grievances and more can fuel disagreements. It’s all too easy to lash out with angry words. Don’t. Just don’t.

I tend to fade into the background at family gatherings. I’m quiet and reserved. I listen more than I speak. I prefer to talk one-on-one with family members rather than wedge my voice into a conversation dominated by strong personalities in a roomful of people.

It’s important to remember that only in silence can you listen.

Would Santa rather read “It was my sister’s fault!” or “I’m sorry I was mean to my sister?”

Thoughts?

Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Discovering the magic of Santa in a small Minnesota town in March March 25, 2015

PEEF, THE MULTI-COLORED TEDDY BEAR created from the imagination of writer Tom Hegg and brought to visual life by artist Warren Hanson, has always held a special place in my heart. Because of my boy, who is no longer a boy but a young adult.

For his eighth birthday, Caleb's sisters created a PEEF cake for their brother.

For his eighth birthday, Caleb’s sisters created a PEEF cake for their brother.

Caleb loved his Beanie Baby-sized PEEF. Slept with the bear. Hugged him. Pressed his patchwork tummy over and over so the bear would squeak.

And then one day PEEF disappeared. Lost. Perhaps fallen from the van on a trip to Grandma’s house. Perhaps… I really have no idea what happened to this fur-roughened-by-little-boy-hands bear.

Somewhere, though, the first two PEEF children’s picture books are tucked away in a box in my house. Autographed during an author visit to Faribault in which Caleb posed for a picture with an over-sized patchwork bear. The location of that photo also eludes me.

PEEF The Christmas Bear reveals how the colorful bear came to be and how he also became Santa’s helper and friend.

This sign shows the artwork for the first PEEF book's cover with local Chad Winsell  as the Santa model.

This sign shows the artwork for the first PEEF book’s cover with local Chad Winsell as the Santa model.

Not until this past Saturday did I learn, though, that the model for that first PEEF book hails from West Concord, a rural southeastern Minnesota community of nearly 800. A sign attached to a chain link fence outside the town’s former school, now turned West Concord Historical Society and Community Center, identifies this town as the home of PEEF’s Santa, Chad Winsell.

Historical Society Director Janis Ray, who seems a reliable go-to source for all things West Concord, explained that Chad was friends with PEEF’s creators, thus became the inspiration for Santa. Chad definitely has that Santa look, that sparkle in his eyes.

Michael "Chad" Winsell. Photo from obituary published by Michaelson Funeral Home.

Michael “Chad” Winsell. Photo from obituary published by Michaelson Funeral Home.

On November 18, 2014, Chad, whose real name was Michael, died after living with a brain tumor for 14 years. He was only 64. When I read his obituary, I understood that this man was more than a model for a book. He modeled the spirit of goodness and kindness and generosity that defines Santa. And for a community to recognize that serves to remind all of us that no matter where you live, who you are, you are valued.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Photo of Michael “Chad” Winsell from the Michaelson Funeral Home website

 

My family still believes in Santa December 26, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 9:02 AM
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Santa poses with my mom and the younger generation at a family holiday gathering on Friday evening.

AGE MATTERS NOT. Not one bit. Not when it comes to Santa.

He’s still magical, whether you’re 12 or 79 ½ or any age in between.

Friday evening, 24 hours before his busiest night of the year, Santa blew into a rural Redwood County residence on the southwestern Minnesota prairie, arriving so unexpectedly that he nearly rocketed a sister-in-law of mine straight out of her chair to the North Pole.

With a rapid drumming on the dining room window, he startled more than a few family members before slipping through a patio door into our holiday gathering.

The oldest family member surprised by Santa's visit, my 79-year-old mom. I should mention that my mom typically does not wear a fancy hat. But my middle sister started a tradition this year of all the women wearing fancy vintage hats. She brought enough for all of us to wear and it was great fun.

The youngest family member in attendance, my 12-year-old nephew, clearly enjoyed Santa's visit, too.

Hugs and handshakes and laughter and good-natured ribbing and even a kiss, followed by countless photos with Santa, defined the surprise visit now imprinted upon our memories.

I love this about my extended family. We don’t allow age to define our fun.

We still believe in Santa.

Santa made the rounds, greeting each family member, except my middle brother who had vanished.

My son and eldest daughter had their picture taken with Santa. My other daughter was unable to make it back to Minnesota for Christmas because she was working at her job as a Spanish medical interpreter in eastern Wisconsin.

Then Santa waved goodbye...

...and magically disappeared as quickly as he had arrived.

HOW ABOUT YOU? What crazy things does your family do at Christmas time to build memories? Does your family still believe in Santa?

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Santa needs a technology lesson January 1, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 11:02 AM
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EVEN SANTA makes mistakes.

The proof lies in this classified ad published this week in the Bargain Hunters section of The Faribault Daily News:

Brand new got for Christmas never used PS3 Tony Hawk Ride. Santa made mistake boy has PS2. $50.00 507-XXX-XXXX.

Santa, I totally get it.

With the ever-changing technology out there, keeping on top of everything becomes a challenge. I gave up long ago.

I wouldn’t know a PlayStation if it walked through the door. True.

So I googled “Tony Hawk Ride,” because I had no clue, and discovered this is a game about skateboarding. Apparently it works only on a PS3, which differs in what way from a PS2 or a PS? How many PlayStations exist anyway and how is a parent supposed to keep this all straight?

By asking the kids, of course. My 16-year-old son has a laptop computer and a Nintendo DS. No PS. No Wii. No Xbox.

He’s asked for them, but I’ve never caved in to the “gotta have it because everyone else has it” mantra. I don’t even apologize. I just say “no.”

Even so, I struggled this year with his request for two computer games and a JavaScript Patterns (what is JavaScript Patterns?) book. I purchased all three from amazon.com, but only after my son went online and showed me exactly what to order.

Yes, this takes the element of surprise out of Christmas giving. But, at least I don’t have to run a classified ad stating that “Santa made a mistake.”

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Sleepy Eye’s Rudolph December 29, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 8:45 AM
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IF I WAS A KID, I would have been genuinely super-excited to see this oversized Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer outside of Sleepy Eye on Christmas Eve afternoon.

 

I photographed Sleepy Eye's Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer while traveling to southwestern Minnesota on Christmas Eve afternoon.

I would have been firing off questions after first exclaiming, “Look, Mom, Rudolph, Rudolph!

“But why isn’t he flying and where are the other reindeer? Where is Santa and where is his sleigh?”

Yes, I would have been full of questions, just like I am today.

Why is this lone Rudolph prancing in the snow along U.S. Highway 14 on the eastern edge of Sleepy Eye, right before you round the curve into town? Is this reindeer always there, or only at Christmas? Where did he come from?

OK, I suppose some smart aleck will answer, “The North Pole, of course.”

But, really, does anyone know?

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling