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Growing up, my family had dueling Santas with the Goldblatts across the street.
The Goldblatts were Jewish, but they always had the prettiest Christmas tree with red beads and birds. And long before honey-baked ham, there was Rosa Goldblatt’s ham, and it was the best I’d ever eaten. At age 4, I declared I wanted to be Jewish. What a great world they lived in – they celebrated Hanukah and Christmas. To my parents’ Methodist dismay, when I learned I couldn’t be Jewish, I said I wanted to be a Catholic. I’m sure they wondered, what’s so wrong with the teaching of John Wesley? The Goldblatts’ Santa was a face, all happy and pink, and it was lit from 6 p.m. to right after the 10 o’clock news. I knew it was Christmas when the Santa came out. In my teens I always called Rosa and told her this, and she would reply something like, “I had to tape it together this year. I don’t know how many more Christmases it will last.” Even after I had moved away for college, the Santa was always there to greet me when I visited Momma and Daddy. Rosa died in 1998. In the late Indiana fall of that year, I received a package. Her daughter Leah had sent me the battered and tattered Santa Claus. My goodness, what a wonderful gift. One year during a spat with my husband, I just left the house and had my retail therapy. Hours later, returning in the dark, the Santa Claus face was lit and hanging on our front porch – again welcoming me. The Santa fell apart on one of our moves. I searched the Internet and vintage shops to replace my old friend and hit pay dirt with the Vermont Country Store Catalog. That company had a new plastic Santa face made from a mold of the ‘50s. And guess what – it was my Santa! In contrast to the Goldblatt’s Santa, the Sandersons’ was 8 feet tall and emblazoned on a board. He sat on the roof of my father’s auto parts store. Someone with a good hand at painting faces had made this one upbeat symbol of the season complete with toys in a knapsack. And the glitter! Did he sparkle. In the early ‘60s Santa came home from the store to hold a prominent place in the garage until December. Then he was dusted off, wired to a tree and lit with a flood light for optimum effect. Every Christmas Eve we would take a family photo in front of Santa before heading inside to read the Christmas story from Luke. My brother Bill’s task was to navigate the mess in the garage and put out Santa, and then reverse the process on Jan. 2. One post-Christmas year in the mid-‘70s, Bill decided to lean Santa against the house in the back yard, whereupon Bill’s beautiful but crazy Irish setter devoured Santa’s bottom half like turkey legs. My wailing made Santa’s amputation a family dilemma. Thankfully, my brother-in-law is quite handy, and he owns a saw. He made a template from the original, and voila, anew plywood Santa. My childhood friend Steve, who gave me a blue-haired doll when I was 5, helped me paint the new Santa. We were taking the job as seriously as teenagers could, but when Daddy came out to check the progress, he became agitated that Santa lacked that certain twinkle. “There’s no jolliness to Santa Claus!” my father boomed. This from a man who had received from his children an Anti Scrooge Pill the year before as a joke – and one he didn’t find amusing. The more Daddy fumed, the more Steve and I laughed. The more we laughed, the madder Daddy got. And the more we tried mot laugh, the more we did. Santa, sans twinkle, went up that year and continued to have his place by the tree until 2002, when the house was sold. Santa went into storage. My parents succumbed to the effects of Alzheimer’s in 2003 and 2005. The painful task of dividing things up among siblings went well until we hit the plywood Santa. We each believed we had a stake in it: Bill because he resurrected him each year, my sister Susan because her husband made the new Santa in 1976, and I for the hilarious afternoon spent with my friend depicting a depressed St. Nick. That old wooden Santa flooded us with memories. Of my learning to read and how patiently the family waited while I read the Christmas story aloud for the first time. Of the Christmas Eve when my brother stood on the coffee table and recited Patrick Henry’s “give me liberty or give me death” speech. Of the first Christmas that Susan and Mike brought baby Micah to the folks’ house. Of all the times we kids and all the cousins would giggle into our sleeves when Daddy made his unusually long Christmas blessing, and then burst out laughing. It wasn’t the plywood Santa that we clung to. It was those memories of our childhood Christmases, our friends, our neighbors, and our family. To this quandary, Bill had a proposal: a Santa Claus-making-and-painting party. The day before Easter, we did just that. We invited dear family friends and cousins and made it a real family affair. Brother-in-law Mike created enough Santa templates for everyone to have a say, and Bill grilled chicken. It was unseasonably cold, and snowflakes fell – I think just to welcome the new Santas. I did a little painting, but I needed time to get it right, and this time my Santa would have that twinkle in his eye. My husband, Dave, drove a trailer back to Indiana with my precious cargo, and down in the basement Santa went until the artistic juices flowed. Santa stayed blank and staring until this year, when we moved to Shelbyville. I was determined that my jolly Santa would make his debut at Dave’s ancestral home. So as you complete your Christmas rounds, drive on down Magnolia Avenue and wave at my big Texas Santa. And don’t forget to look on the porch for the Santa face. Hope they make you smile. Sally Sanderson Fay is the granddaughter-in-law of former Shelby News owner Bennett Roach and recently moved to Shelbyville.