The Santa Claus Interview at Cheekwood
Interview & Photographs by (c)Raeanne Rubenstein, 2012
Once upon a time, Raeanne got invited to a very special party. It was to be on the morning of November 21, at a very magical place- Cheekwood Botanical Gardens & Museum of Art, located in a secret forest full of plants and flowers in a special little town called Nashville. All the little children and grown-ups who got invited were very excited, because rumor had it that in spite of how busy he always is at this time of the year, Santa Claus himself was going to be there, and so were several of his favorite reindeer. The reason that he was coming was to be sure that all the little children, and their parents and their friends knew about a very important event that was happening there, called Cheekwood “Santa Saturdays” - every single Saturday between Thanksgiving and Christmas from 10am-2pm.
Present on each of these mornings will be Jolly Old Saint Nick himself, as well as some of his special reindeer (like Jingle, Snowflake, Blitzen, and Holly, Comet, Prancer or Vixen, you never know who’ll be there! ), a life-sized replica of his North Pole workshop where he and all the elves make all those beautiful toys he places under the Xmas trees at the homes of all the good little boys and girls, and anyone else who’s been good during the year gone by. And if that’s not enough, there’s a little train track nestled among the pines, upon which rides a cute red train that toots its horn as it rolls along. There’s also a sleigh that Santa rides around the world, and if you ask politely, he might even pose with you in it for a picture.
But the most unusual things you may see, if Santa thinks you’ve been extra-specially worthy, are the compass, the pocket watch, and the key to the Toy Room, that help guide him on his way each Xmas eve. Best of all, you just might get to see Santa’s very special telescope that looks straight into the heart of each and every living soul, so Santa can know for certain if they’re really naughty or nice.
Quite smitten with this jollly and rotund legend in his own time, and especially with his long, white beard (no phoney costume here, this beard is definitely attached to Santa’s face), I worked up the courage to ask him if I might speak with him for a little while. “Ho! Ho! Ho! Little girl,” he replied with a jolly laugh, (though I’m not little nor hardly a girl), “I would be most happy to sit with you in my magic sleigh, and discuss whatever your little heart desires.”
So we clambered into the sleigh, and sat there for a while, as I asked him whatever came to my mind, about what it’s like to really be.......Santa Claus.
Santa Claus: This is Santa’s newest old sleigh, its 111 years old. It’s here at Cheekwood with me today..
Dish: Tell me about the experience of being Santa at Christmas time.
SC: Cheekwood’s a stopover of course, not the North Pole. We know that the North Pole is far, far from here. The experience of coming down and visiting the South and all the children and the families, and children of all ages, we’re just happy to see everybody come over and walk through the toy shop. There’ll be antique toys there that your grandma might remember as well.
Dish: How does Santa feel during the holidays, does he get grumpy?
SC: No, no. The elves do a lot of the work. So Santa is fired up on cookies and ready to go, and all ready for the big night.
Dish: What do you enjoy most about your experience on Christmas?
SC: Well, I enjoy the good children, of course, because the good children are what it’s all about. Everybody should try to be one of the good children. No matter how old you are, it’s all about giving back to your fellow man and being kind and offering a little bit of love around, a hug. That’s the best gift you can give anybody and that’s what Santa’s all about, peace and love. So, we’re glad to see everybody and we hope that whatever we do, whoever and however we meet, we make their day a little brighter and put them in the spirit for the holiday.
Dish: Now tell me honestly, Santa. It must be every year for how many years?
SC: Well, about 1200 years that Santa Claus has been traveling about, but not just me, of course. It was not that far back that Father Christmas came and chose me to be Santa. We’ve been doing that now for quite a long while and hopefully we’ll be able to do it for a lot longer.
Dish: How did it feel when Father Christmas came down? Please describe it for me.....
SC: It was magical. My wife Anja and I were asleep in our home, far, far to the north from here, where the forest stops, and there’s snow and ice most all year long. On a particularly cold night, there was a light shining and glowing around the house. We brought some reindeer inside, that’s just how cold it was. It was so cold. We had no idea what the light shining above was, so we looked out the window and we saw a procession of little people about like this (indicating their short stature), and they were vondacomps, which is a type of elf, and they were leading a procession. And there was one special person with them, you could tell that he was the leader. He might have been a king or something, I don’t know, he was dressed so regally. That was Father Christmas! He came and bestowed the honor of being Santa Claus on me, and it was just amazing, because I only had two reindeer, and I told him there was no way that we could deliver all the toys and presents around the world in one night. And he said that he was going to help and the elves were going to help. And on that one special night, the evening of the night, darkness would prevail until we completed our journey around the world. We’ve been doing it for a long time since then, and with the help of the magic dust on the reindeer’s feet on Christmas Eve, the reindeer are able to fly and carry Santa around the world.
Dish: Did you have to go to Santa school?
SC: No, no, no. Either you’ve got it or you don’t. You have to love to do it, in order to bring it off.
Dish: Do you have a favorite memory?
SC: A favorite memory? I do. Two memories really. One is with an organization called the Siskind Foundation in Chattanooga, TN. They work with mentally challenged individuals. As a young Santa, I was at a Christmas celebration with them and a man about 40 years old, who was one of the most true believers I ever met, grabbed me and hugged me so tight that I could barely breathe. We had to convince him to loosen up just a little bit on Santa, so that I could breathe. But he was a loving man, and a wonderful fan of Christmas.
And then there was a little blind girl who came with her mother, and put a little matchbox in my hand. And when the girl started to leave, I handed it to her mother, and she said, ‘No, no, she brought that, saved it all year for you, because you forgot it last year.’ Of course I didn’t mean to forget, but when I got home, I opened it up. And there was a little pink satin ribbon and a little gold chain in there, and I’ve kept that for about 60-something years now.
Dish: That must have been so inspiring.
SC: It was a very special honor to be able to portray the type of individual that St. Nicholas was, and it’s a special honor to be able to convey it to children like this.
Dish: Does it inspire you for the other 364 days a year?
SC: I’ll put it like this. I think at Christmas, or any season that celebrates love and generosity and compassion for your fellow man, you’re never better than you are right at that particular time. If you say Christmas brings that out in each individual, I truly believe that, I believe that Santa has a special power or ability to convey that to the public and to individuals. It makes everybody want to do a little better in their day to day lives, and be a little more generous and giving and loving. What else could there be that would be better than that? Nothing beats that.
Dish: One more thing. Tell me the truth, do you shave your beard after Christmas is over?
SC: No. It’s about half this long most of the year and then on the 4th of July, all I do is trim it a little bit, and then let it grow. This is about as long as it gets.
At this point, Santa suggests we visit his little replica Toy Shoppe, packed with lovely toys both new and ancient, and I happily agreed.
Dish: So, tell me what this is?
SC: This is Santa’s special compass that lets him know where he is in the world, and his pocket watch to tell what time it is. We’ve got the good list, just as you’ve always heard, for very special children and those who want to be on the good list. And then we have a very special key to the toy room at the North Pole and there are only two of those in existence. Mrs. Claus keeps one back at the barn/toy shop and Santa carries one with him. Hopefully we’ll be back in a few days, a week or so, and we’ll be loading up that sleigh, ready to go.
Dish: And what about this device that you were looking through, what is that?
SC: That telescope is a very special telescope. Santa had it made and it can look all around the world and see children, and look into the hearts of children, and see if they’re being good like they say they’re being good, and adults as well. So, next time that you feel yourself slipping into the naughty mode, just know that Santa knows if you’ve been naughty, or if you’ve been nice (laughs jovially).
Dish: Now that you’re in Nashville for a few days, will you be visiting anywhere else?
SC: While I’m in Nashville this year, Santa's going to be visiting the Ronald McDonald House, where there are very special friends of mine. And we’re going to be at the Ryman Auditorium with Vince Gill and Amy Grant during the Make A Wish Foundation benefit.
Dish: Are you singing?
SC: You never know, I could just break into a Christmas Carol at any time (Santa laughs long and loud!). You know, Vince and Amy are two of Santa’s very favorite individuals, as well as my favorite performers. It’s an honor to be here today, and its also an honor to be able to contribute to things like that. We also do Christmas for the School for the Blind and it’s active enough for an old guy like me.
Dish: Do you move on to other cities then?
SC: I’ve done some things. We’ll be at Sumner Regional Hospital In Gallatin, Tennessee. We’ve gone to Atlanta before to do some things and the Carolinas. But we mostly stick around the Tennessee area before we head back North, of course.
In case you haven’t been so good or nice, and Santa doesn’t stop at your house this year, he wanted me to tell you that “we’re very fortunate to have a lovely shop here at Cheekwood in Nashville, TN.” And also to remind you that you really can do better next year! All you have to do is be good, close your eyes, and dream of Santa every day, until he visits your house once again and leaves your heart’s desire under the tree.
For more on “Santa Saturdays”, and the beautiful and amazing Cheekwood itself, go to www.cheekwood.org