In 1961 my dad created a 16-foot tall Santa Claus. At the time, he owned Keller Advertising and painted huge roadside billboards and local storefront windows. When I was 5, he designed, drew, and painted four wooden pieces that when connected made a smiling Santa that he would raise and attach to our 18-foot chimney. Our 1950’s ranch style home was at the end of a winding gravel road off of Highway 190 on the outskirts of town. Dad set a spot light on Big Santa so cars could see him waving as they drove by. Also, Dad made the back view of a 7 year-old boy and a 5 year-old girl waving at Santa. My red tricycle was set next to the pigtailed girl to create a Rockwell Christmas moment.
Over the years, my feelings about Big Santa have changed.
In the 1960’s Big Santa added magical excitement to my kid dreams of Mr. Claus’s superpowers. Santa’s smiling presence also gave my family a touch of local fame as folks drove past our place each Christmas, and we even made the Eunice News once.
Fast forward to the 1980’s after my grandma died, and my parents bought her 100 year-old home and we moved to town. Now Big Santa needed an 18-foot pole to support him as he waved to sidewalk visitors and Second Street motorists. Now Santa was a novelty who made his December appearance when I swooped into town for my mandatory college semester break.
In the beginning of the 21st century Big Santa loomed large in a different way. After my three sons were past their “I believe in Santa” phase, they helped their Papa put up the Santa the day after Thanksgiving and take him down right after Christmas day chaos.
Putting up Big Santa became a complicated family tradition. In 2007 my
dad was 80, so he mostly directed his grandsons (my boys and their 2 cousins) in the raising of the Santa. First, they hauled the four sections from the back of the garage and cleaned up Mr. Claus before laying him facedown on the front lawn. Then several wooded 2X4’s were arranged and screwed to the Santa sections to pull him all together. Next 4 or 5 guys sorta lifted and walked Santa towards his standing pole and secured him in place with screws and wire. Papa sat in a folding chair and barked orders to his grandsons. By 2012 he had his walker beside him, and the boys did their best to keep Papa from grunting and struggling to stand to correct their construction mistakes. Of course, mistakes were as inevitable as Papa’s complaining and cussing. Once my middle son wisely suggested they buy new tools since my dad’s hammer head had a tendency to fall off its wooden handle, and the screws were more rust than metal. (“This would be a lot easier if we weren’t using tools from the Stone Age!”) Papa scoffed at such nonsense: “Give me that damn hammer! I’ll do it.”
So the grandsons worked with worn-out tools and rotting wood as they maneuvered around a short-tempered, crooked-backed, bossy-coach of a grandpa. Big Santa became a dreaded sort of family tradition. “If we get up early enough tomorrow, we can get Santa up before Papa wakes up,” said my youngest on the fortunate Black Friday of 2014.
Despite the frustration and anger that accompanied Big Santa’s arrival, family and friends still loved to pose in front of him each holiday. He made a dramatic backdrop, and passers-by often stopped to snap their own Big Santa moment.
Now Dad is 90 and living with us in Texas. Big Santa still spends his off-season days in Grandma’s garage. His fate now is in cousin Chiquita’s hands since she bought Grandma’s home. Hopefully Big Santa will still come out to wave at the small town folks of Eunice, Louisiana, who parade past his tall smile.