Once again we are in what many call “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year”, our season of Christmas.  And with it comes a treasure-trove of memories which help us highlight and prepare for the coming days leading up to what the late organist Virgil Fox referred to as “The Great Day.”

          For all of us in Monroe and Walton County we have more than just Christmas to be excited over this year; it is the town and county’s 200th birthday, a monumental event!  Many of the citizens of our town and county will be taking part in many of the various celebrations planned for the event and being able to say we witnessed such an occasion is cause for celebration alone….We will not see such as this again!

          Every year at this time, I become extremely nostalgic, missing the Monroe I knew and loved as a child and young adult.  I miss all those wonderful family friends I knew growing up who now sweetly reside in my memory along with many family members long gone as well.  I strongly believe it was a combination of things, Monroe I knew sixty plus years ago, the folks my family and I knew, the general spirit of the town back then and all the preparations that went into making the Christmas holiday of yore seem so special, has given me over the years the deep appreciation and love for this season we celebrate today.

          Walton Tribune Editor David Clemons sent out on Facebook recently a request for folks to send in their Christmas memories which held a special place in their hearts.  I am sure he was bombarded with replies and enjoyed every one of them.  I could not resist to send one of my childhood memories to him, the Christmas Eve I decided I was going to hide under a love seat in our living room, across from the Christmas tree and the fireplace, determined to see for myself just how Santa was able to manage to get in and out of our house via the chimney with his huge bag of gifts and create a wonderful scene for Christmas morning.

          After placing a plate of oatmeal raisin cookies and a bottle of Coke on the mantle right where he would see them after crawling down the chimney to our living room, I crawled under the love seat and began my vigil.  Both my parents found this most amusing, telling me I would have a long wait as Santa did not like to be seen or disturbed when he arrived; he had a lot of work to do and if he even suspicioned anyone was still awake in a household, he just might not stop!  Of course I knew better, Santa WOULD be there and would be so engrossed in his work, he would never know I was anywhere but in my bed as he did his work. 

          Late in the evening my mother came in and began turning off the lights in the living room except for the tree. “We have to leave the tree lit for Santa so he will have light from which to work,” she told me, leaning down to look where I lay.  “I just hope you are not too disappointed if there is nothing to enjoy in the morning by your determination to wait up for him.”  And with that she was off to bed, leaving me alone. 

          I remember looking at the large cedar tree in the corner of the living room with all the colored lights giving off a magical hue, the smell of the tree, seeing all the wrapped presents laying on a soft cloud of cotton from my father’s cotton office. I remember the excitement of telling my friends how I actually saw Santa after he landed in our fireplace, what he really looked like, how long his beard was, the size of his sack of gifts, the expression on his face as he enjoyed the cookies and Coke and then…….

          Next thing I knew I woke up in my bed and it was early Christmas morning!  How did I get from the living room to my bed and not remember it?  Scrambling from my bed, I woke my parents and my sister and we made our way to the living room to see if Santa had been.  Remembering what my mother told me, I was a bit reluctant to go in, fearing she might have been right. 

          But what a scene it was!  The tree, still lit, gave off a beautiful light to showcase the fact Santa had been there, enjoyed his cookies and Coke and left gifts for me, my sister and my parents.

          A big question loomed in my mind.  Just how did I get from under the love seat into my bed and not remember it?  Both my parents professed no knowledge nor did my sister.  My father, with a twinkle in his eye, mused, “I bet I know what happened,” he said from his chair where he observed all the opening of gifts and enjoying the excitement of the morning, “When Santa arrived you must have fallen asleep and so he gently pulled you from your hiding spot and put you in your bed so he could get busy with what he was there for.  He probably didn’t like being disturbed but perhaps the cookies and Coke made up that bit of inconvenience.” To this day I still have no idea how I got from one place to another and not remember it.

          For me, the Christmas season is full of Monroe memories: the annual parade through town, the stores decking their halls with Christmas decorations, the streets and stores full of shoppers, the magic crispness in the air that told everyone something magical was about to happen, the smell of wood being burned in fireplaces all over town, the church choirs readying their special music for the Sundays prior to Christmas Day, riding around town after dark looking at all the decorations on houses on various streets, the agony of waiting for the arrival of our big cedar tree from Mel Harris’s farm, the anticipation of getting a “reprieve” from school for a couple of weeks, the decorations all along Broad Street, “Santa’s House” on the old courthouse square, the appearance of Santa in the windows of Gallant-Belk and Aycock’s, and speaking of Santa’s, the wonderful Santa & bag of toys that appeared like magic every December at a certain time in the swing on the front porch of Dorothy & Bob Nowell’s Walton Street home.  Thanks to Lee Nowell Radford, I finally learned the backstory of how that Santa came to be.

          My most beloved Santa and the first one I ever saw face to face as a very young child belonged to my aunt who would place him on a bed of greenery on a desk in her living room.  She got him when she and her new husband were honeymooning in Santa Claus, Indiana.  He now holds a place of honor each year in my den and is a sweet reminder of my childhood.

          The Santa’s who rank second for me are the Coca-Cola Santa’s which were created by the Swedish artist Haddon H. Sundblom whom Coke commissioned to paint back in 1931 and did so for the next 35 years. The “model” he used for many of those years was a retired salesman named Lou Prentice, who Sundlbom says “embodied all the features and spirit of Santa Claus. The wrinkles in his face all seemed to be happy wrinkles which were so evident when he smiled or laughed.”

          “When Lou passed on I began looking around for someone to replace him.  A friend I was talking to about finding the perfect replacement suggested I use my face.  I took a close look in the mirror and realized I did have a close resemblance to Lou.  Since then I have used my own face as my model for Santa Claus.”

          Because of the spirit and magic Santa evokes for so many, I cannot help but love and appreciate the embodiment Santa brings to millions all over the world, but none so meaningful as the Santa’s I knew and loved in Monroe when Christmas would come to town.