December 1988

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A Visit to Santa's Workshops

Mother's Christmas Story


Bill Treichler

Every Christmas, when we were young, my mother told my sister and me a wonderful story about visiting Santa Claus's workshops at the North Pole.

She would tell us the story several days before Christmas, when we were getting fretful with anticipation, even though she was busy with Christmas preparations: decorating the house, baking special breads and cookies, and making and wrapping presents. We always looked forward to hearing the story again and would beg for it each year. Telling it to us may have given her a respite from all the concerns she had getting ready for her most special day of the year.

My mother had been born on Christmas Day and she was named Merry Esther. Her mother, too, had been born on Christmas Day, so in our family Christmas was an important event that brought all of the aunts, uncles, and cousins together from far and wide every year. My mother had four sisters and two brothers. We filled Granny's house.

Christmas was a wonderful time in our family and the story of the visit to the North Pole has always stayed in my memory as a special part of Christmas when I was little.

I have been trying to recall this story of our trip to the North Pole where we saw the marvelous toy shops, and I asked my sister what she could remember of the story Mother had told us.

She wrote to tell me what she remembered and she also told me that one of our cousins had heard a similar story from her mother, too. This meant to me that, maybe, all of my mother's sisters and brothers had heard the story from their mother or, from their father, who was such a great story-teller in their memories, especially at Christmas time when every year he would take a week or so off from his business travels to be home. In the evenings he read aloud to the children.

Here is the wondrous North Pole story as it might have been told to my mother and her older sister Janet and her brother Robert, 88 years ago, by their father.

A Visit to Santa's Workshops

"So you would like to hear about Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus and all of their helpers who are making dolls with China faces and stuffed bodies and some with jointed wood bodies and legs, and doll cradles, and stuffed animals and red-painted barns, and gilded circus wagons with caged lions and tigers, and trains with cars that hook together, oh, and fire engines with brass pumps and rubber hoses coiled on reels and even spotted Dalmatians standing with the helmeted firemen on the rear platform of the fire engine, and ladder trucks with teams of white horses . Well, at Santa Claus's workshops they are very busy all year 'round fashioning all these beautiful toys and many more that I haven't thought of and maybe you haven't remembered."

"What about skates and sleds and toboggans?"

"Well, Robert, they do make them for all the children who live where it is cold enough now to skim across the ice or slide over the snowy fields. Santa Claus has a special shop where the skates are forged and the sled runners are formed with curls at each end and another shop where the sled boards are cut with a scroll saw into fancy shapes and where the toboggan slats are steamed and bent and another place where his helpers put on bright-painted stripes and then gleaming varnish over all of the wood parts."

"But, I would like to see these sleds and the fire engines being made."

"Well, I think if we move up a little closer to the stove and maybe you eat another of those ginger snaps that Mother has just pulled out of the oven, if they have cooled enough already. . . ."

"Oh, Father, he has had at least six already!"

"Oh, has he, Jane? Well, I'll have one myself and you and Esther have one or even another one yourselves. And then you all help me to imagine what it might be like if you were out sledding on an afternoon like this when the snow is deep and you all three have gone down the long hill four or five times and pulled your sled back, and Robert says he wants to be pulled on the sled back up this time and you girls have pulled him most of the way up but you are so warm and so tired that you decide to sit down for a little rest on the sled right by the big pine which has low branches that sweep way out all around and are covered now with fluffy snow. The sky is overcast but glowing with a soft amber warmth. All three of you are seated on the sled with your heads leaning together feeling very warm and drowsy.

Just about then you heard a jingle of bright bells and you looked up to see four pairs of reindeer with bells all around their girth straps and a trace running on either side of each back to a glistening red sleigh that had a high dash board in front and an even higher backrest that was covered on the inside with deeply padded leather. Inside was a man. He was not much bigger than you. Not much taller did he look standing in the sleigh, but he did look comfortably wider. He had on a white fur-trimmed red suit and he had just pulled off his red gloves and was looking at a sheet of paper or maybe it was parchment.

The reindeer were shaking their bodies and stamping their hooves, impatient to be moving, when that man in the sleigh said, 'Whoa, now. I've got to figure out from my map where we are before we can go on any farther, or we'll just get more lost.'

'You're in Cedar Rapids.'

'What's that?' said the little man looking for the voice. And he saw you.

'Well, well, well, now let me see my map! Well, so we are.'

The reindeer lunged into their harness, but the man called, "Wait a minute. I have to know who our friends are who told me where we are.'

'We are the Davis children and we live in that house right across First Avenue. Right over there.'

'Yes, that is right. That was Robert and this is Esther and I am Janet.'

'Who are you, and who are all of the reindeer?'

'Why, I thought you would know. I am Santa Claus and these are the reindeer who have come with me today to pull my sleigh. This is a new and bigger sleigh for this Christmas and I am trying it out and laying out my route for our trip when we must haul all of the toys. I'm afraid that I took a little snooze on these cushions because there is so much room here when I don't have my bag with toys along. When I woke up, I didn't see where I was. But you have told me.

'Now the reindeer who have brought me today are from a herd of reindeer who live at the North Pole and help me out on my trips. The reindeer up there on the right is Meteor, and Meridian on the left, Sparkle and Solstice, Ajax and Avalanche, and Blizzard and Blustery here close to the sleigh.'

Whenever he called a name that reindeer shook all of his bells and you children heard then that the bells on each reindeer were tuned to a different note, each of the tones of the musical scale.

Janet exclaimed, 'They all sound a different tone. Do they make music?'

'Indeed they do,' replied Santa. And all of the reindeer began a dance which produced a tune for Santa and you.

'Now since you have been such good help to me, telling me where we are when I was lost, wouldn't you like to ride in the sleigh for a quick trip to see my workshops at the North Pole.

'Oh yes, I would.' said Robert scrambling from his sled toward the sleigh.

'I would like to see where they paint all of the beautiful toys and pictures," said Esther.

'Well, I think we can go, now that we know who you are,' said Janet who was the oldest and felt responsible. 'Shall we bring our sled?'

'You can leave it right here and we will bring you back to it when you have met Mrs. Claus and seen the workshops.'

So you all climbed into the sleigh and sat on the big cushion. Then Santa Claus whistled a fanfare. The reindeer replied with a flourish of their bells and then rose into the peachy soft sky and streamed around in a large loop toward the North while the sleigh followed behind, drawn by the four long trace straps from the reindeer.

As the sleigh rose up into the sky, opalescent clouds were all around. Wisps of vapor slid past and moistened your faces. Sitting on the seat on either side of Santa with a thick red blanket spread across your knees you were snug and warm. The reindeer bells soon lulled you into pleasant sleep.

'We are almost there,' was the next voice you heard. 'We are going to land right by the North Pole.' exclaimed Santa, and you opened your eyes to look over the side of the sleigh and see a great towering white trunk standing in the foggy haze. It was covered with many shining gold and silver lights that twinkled as the sleigh following the reindeer swung around it in wide circles slowly sinking down.

The lights on the North Pole were in spiral bands and as you floated lower and lower the lights took on colors of pink and amethyst and emerald that got stronger and brighter as you went lower and lower.

'These are the Northern Lights, Santa explained. 'Sometimes you can see a reflection of them where you live. When the lights are very strong they shine out in streamers on the sky in wide bands of rose and green.'

Soon you saw that the North Pole rose from a great dome of ice that shimmered from the Northern Lights shining on it.

There was a great jingling of bells and you could see white snow rushing by under the runners and see the reindeer ahead bounding across a vast snowfield spreading as far as you could see, all around the crystal hemisphere of ice. At its base were huge drifts of snow that had been blown out as long arms extending from the round ice mountain. Near the end of one of these waves of snow the reindeer drew the sleigh under an overhanging curl of snow and suddenly you were inside a tunnel that glowed with a blue-green light just as you see down a deep crack in the snow. As you went on in the sleigh the tunnel opened up and you slid out into a great cavern with a domed ceiling of ice. Around the edges where the walls came down there was snow but in the center there were mosses and sedges growing in a bed of pine needles. All around the circle there were pine trees and under them were clusters of little log buildings with little people going in and out. The great domed cave was the inside of the ice mountain at the base of the North Pole and it was lit by the Northern Lights shining through the ice.

Santa leaned back against the seat and called out, 'Whoa, Meridian. Whoa, Meteor."

The sleigh stopped by a building that had a wide roof and long overhanging eaves. The walls were of logs. Those on the bottom were very large. The logs in each higher course weren't quite as large as the ones below. Each wall of logs was wider at the bottom than it was at the top. At the corners the logs were carefully fitted together and where the end of a log stood out from between two other logs that end was carved into the form of an animal. The big log on the bottom at one corner was carved like the head and shoulders of a sleeping bear with its paws over its eyes. In another place the end of a bottom log was carved like the head of a walrus sunning himself along some rocky seashore. The higher, smaller logs were carved in the form of smaller animals: some with elk heads, and some with wolf faces. Higher up the logs were in the shape of a salmon or a squirrel. The uppermost log ends were carved to look like geese, some of them with wings as though they were flying. Between all of the logs there was moss growing.

When the sleigh stopped, each of the reindeer stepped easily out of the harness and leaped up onto the roof. The roof was covered with moss and ferns and short grass and the reindeer immediately started nibbling.

There were other reindeer there, too, many, and as you looked all around the big dome you saw that most of the log buildings had sod roofs, and all of them with reindeer grazing on top.

There were openings in the walls with warm yellow and orange light shining out. Some openings were doorways and others were small windows so that people inside could see out. There were faces looking out and many people hurrying in and out of the doorways pushing wheelbarrows or pulling carts with shafts. Each of these was brightly painted with striping in beautiful colors.

They were piled high with boards, bolts of cloth, and other goods. The people pulling and pushing them were all about Santa's size. They weren't any bigger than you and some of them were smaller.

All of them were in a great bustle, hurrying with their loads or their errands.

They wore bright clothes, too. The men had on jackets and knic ers with boots with bright red or green socks sticking out. Some of them wore caps and some of the women wore bonnets. The women and girls had on wide skirts with black shoes underneath and fitted blouses with long sleeves. The children were helping to push the carts or were pulling smaller wagons with supplies. All of these busy people were going in and out of the doorways.

Santa had pulled himself out of the sleigh and said, 'Let us go and see Mrs. Claus, first. I want her to see you.' You followed him through a wide doorway in the log wall. The room inside also had walls of logs. Each log was carved with animals and trees. The logs were a light ocher color and some, but not all, of the carvings were painted so that particular animals would stand out from the background. You saw all of the famous story-book animals like the three bears.

Also on the logs were pegs that stuck out at various heights so that you could always find one that you could reach. Santa took off his jacket and hung it on a peg with his cap. You took off your warm coats and hung them on pegs so that you would be able to follow him to see Mrs. Claus. You even took off your boots and put them into one of the little boxes of different sizes and shapes along the wall, just as Santa had slid out of his boots and put them in a box. He pulled out a pair of soft slippers from another box and put them on. Each of you did the same..

'Now let us find Mrs. Claus.'

You followed behind him as he went through another doorway into a hall with a bright light shining from a wide opening at the far end. When you went to the end of the hall and into a large room, you saw it was a great kitchen with tables and cupboards all around. In the center was a large brick oven with many doors in it. At the bottom of the oven on one side was a brick hearth and along it were openings to tunnels that went underneath. In these holes were bright fires and glowing coals.

There in front of the oven was Mrs. Claus. She looked just like Santa except that she had a pinker face with soft hair all around and she wore a little white bonnet-like cap. She had on a lavender dress with a great apron over it on which there were sprinkles of flour. She was just inspecting a big sheet of cookies in one of the ovens. She straightened up when she heard Santa's voice and brought up her apron with her two hands and wiped the glistening beads of moisture from her face and pushed back her hair.

'Dear, I brought Janet and Esther and Robert back with me for a visit to see you and the workshops.'

'I'm so glad that you did, Santa, so that I can see some of the beautiful children to whom you take toys. I've always wanted to ride along in the sleigh, but then there wouldn't be room for enough toys in the sleigh if I went.

'Hello, children! Robert, would you like one of these ginger snap cookes? And here, Esther and Janet, you have one, too. We are making cookies and Christmas bread today so that we will have them all ready for our Christmas feasting here when Santa gets back from his trip. We always have days of eating and listening to Santa tell his tales about visiting your house and all the other children's homes.'

Mrs. Claus picked up a cloth and pulled out a sheet of smoking cookies, 'Oh, I left these in almost too long!' She deftly slid them off the hot sheet and picked up another pan filled with cookies ready to bake and pushed it into the hot oven. Just then one of her helpers beckoned and Mrs. Claus rushed over to another table and Santa and you followed to see a large loaf of braided bread that had, here and there, raisins just breaking out of the surface.

'Yes. it looks beautiful and I think it has risen just enough. Let's put it in this oven to bake while we braid some more loaves. Santa, be sure to show the children all around the kitchen and to the buttery and the cheese cellar and into the dining hall, too. Janet and Esther and Robert, I hope you will come again another year to see us, maybe when I'm not so busy, but, well, that isn't likely,' she said as she moved to another place in the kitchen where other helpers were mixing batter for gingerbread.

Then she called, 'Oh, do come over here with Santa and see this gingerbread castle these clever people have made. See it has tiny bayberry candles that light the rooms inside. And it has a frosting that drips from the eaves and pinnacles and from the balconies. Isn't it just charming?'

You all stood and gazed, speechless. Even Santa couldn't say anything because he was so overcome with all of the little details of the gingerbread castle: the drawbridge that reached across the moat filled with creamy icing; the gingerbread men standing on the parapets; the frosting-caparisoned horse, also made of gingerbread, standing in the courtyard. After a while he said, 'It is wonderful.'

Then he took you to the room where the milk and cream from the reindeer are kept and the butter is churned and also the room just off the cellars where they press the cheeses before they are put on the shelves in the tunnels to cure.

You saw all these places with tiled walls and bright tin sieves and ladles and round blue-glazed crocks. All the buttermakers and cheesemakers worked with their sleeves pushed up and their trouser legs rolled up. Their feet were in wooden shoes on the wet, tiled floors.

There were people churning butter in wood churns with a plunger and others using barrel churns. Other people were working the butter on a wood table by running a big wood roller back and forth over it to squeeze out all of the buttermilk so that the butter could be patted into shiny bricks that looked like gold wax.

On the cheese floor other people were cooking cheese and others were putting curd into round molds with still others waxing the round cheeses with red and green wax.

Then you followed Santa into the great dining hall where there was a wide trestle table that ran down the center. The center part of the room was two stories high so that light streamed in through windows on all sides. Along the side walls were benches like settles with cushions on them. On either side of the table were benches where all of the helpers could sit to eat. At one end of the table was a wide arm chair for Santa and at the other end another chair that had a high back with sides and a. It was painted lavender on the inside and a light gray on the outside. That chair was for Mrs. Claus, of course.

Behind Santa's chair was a fireplace as wide as the whole end of the room where a great fire could be built although just then only a few embers were glowing. At the other end, behind Mrs. Claus's chair were arched doorways that led from the kitchen. Food for everyone to eat could be brought in through these archways. On a balcony above was what looked like a palisade of poles of different sizes and lengths and all with a notch cut into their front side.

'That,' said Santa, 'is Mrs. Claus's pride. It is a pipe organ that plays soft music for our mealtimes. It plays for dances and reels in the evenings when our work is done and we have moved aside the benches and tables.

'Now that you have seen the dining hall, would you like to see the workshops? Let us go to the wood shop first.'

He led the way out of the dining hall and along the row of buildings circling the great inner courtyard where the sleigh had stopped. You went into a large shop where there was a pungent smell of pine and where there was sawdust and pine shavings on the floor. Here were dozens and dozens of benches with craftsmen sawing and smoothing boards and others fastening them together to make boxes that would hold pop-out Jacks. Others were making doll beds, little cupboards with glass doors, and even little houses that had rooms with tiny furniture in them. You gazed all around and saw more and more toys: wagons with side racks on them, marionette and puppet theaters, chairs and tables, and small easels and drawing boards.

All kinds of wooden toys were being made. Some boards were cut with curved ends to be fitted together for sled tops. Lathes were spinning small blocks of wood and men and boys were deftly slicing away the corners with chisels and turning out toy soldiers and different sized wooden eggs that fitted inside each other. Santa said that these toys would go next to another shop where they would be painted or varnished and all of the finishing touches put on them.

When you had looked until you were dazzled, Santa said, 'Let's go now to the forge so Robert can see where the skates and sled runners are formed.'

You followed him some way to another doorway and went into a large room that was smoky from the fires where the metal was heated in the forges. All around were men with their sleeves rolled way up because of the heat from the forges and because they were working very hard with large hammers shaping the hot metal into skate runners on big anvils.

One of the men would pull a glowing piece of iron with long-handled tongs from under the heap of coals in the forge and lay it on an anvil. Another man with a hammer would strike it a few blows and there it was, formed into an ice skate runner! At another forge a blacksmith had many square rods of iron sticking into the hot coals. He took these out one at a time and bent them over the horn of his anvil with a few blows of his hammer into a sled runner end.

Santa said, 'We can follow the boy who is taking the runners away in the wheelbarrow.' You went behind him to another room where many people were drilling holes in the wood slats that you had seen being cut out for sleds. Other men were riveting them together and fastening on the runners with more rivets.

From here you went to another shop where many artisans were painting stripes on the sleds and then hanging the sleds on pegs sticking out from the roof beams. There were sleds hanging everywhere while their paint was drying. 'We make a lot of sleds," Santa said.

And there were other toys in the paint shop: Jack-in-the-Box toys with pictures painted on each side and the lid of the box, circus wagons with gaudy colors and gilding, doll houses with painted red-tiled roofs and flowers and flower boxes painted on their walls. There were dozens and dozens of each and none of them quite the same because each was done by hand. Oh, sometimes they used stencils for the shutters and windows and sometimes one painter would do all of the chimneys or all of the doors, but every house was special and was being made for a certain little girl just as the circus wagons were being made and painted each for a special boy.

'Esther, would you like to see more of the painting? Come along, all of you, and we will go into this room where the artists paint the glass slides for the magic lanterns.'

You went into a studio that had windows in the ceiling to let in plenty of light. There were people sitting at tables and painting scenes on small glass strips. These painted glass strips are made to slide between the lenses in the lantern. When the lamp is lit inside the magic lantern the picture on the slide will show on a white sheet pinned to the wall. Then a roomful of people can see the scene painted on the glass as a large colored picture on the sheet.

The people painting the slides used the tiniest brushes. Around the room some of these artists were sitting back on their stools and chuckling at the very funny picture they had just finished—like the one of the little man being pulled out of his boat by the big fish he had just hooked.

In another room close by, other artists were painting beautiful faces on china doll heads and some were painting doll-sized tea sets. All of these porcelain dishes and the china doll heads had to be fired in a kiln after they were painted. There were many of the finished ones around because Christmas is getting close and most of these things were already fired. There were beautiful blue and white sets in the willow pattern; there were tiny little cups and teapots with brush strokes of deep maroon and black for doll tea parties; and there were larger sets that had elegant gold bands on them for real little girl tea parties.

Santa said, 'We are just finishing up for the season here and we're doing a few last minute things. You will want to see where the china dolls' heads and arms are put on their bodies.' Again you followed him through some hallways and doors to another room where many people were stuffing doll bodies and doll legs until they were plump and squeezable and then fastening them firmly to the smooth, pink heads and arms.

Right beside this room was another room with plenty of light where row upon row of seamstresses were cutting out and sewing beautiful red and violet, and fawn, and deep green and rich black coats and hats for the dolls.

Many had fur trimmings around the hats and collars. When the sewers finished a coat they put it on a doll that some other seamstress had made a dress for, a dress with lace edging or smart tucks.

And there were doll babies that had dresses that hung way below their feet. There was every imaginable kind of doll—dolls that any little girl in the world would have recognized as being dressed just right. There were even dolls dressed as little boys in blue sailor suits and some in very fancy red soldier uniforms with piping down the seams and brass buttons and braided epaulets.

'We make a lot of dolls,' said Santa, 'nearly every little girl wants a doll. I want to show you another shop, now. One that you will be interested to see Janet.'

You followed Santa to another place and heard musical sounds even before you were in the workroom. When you were shown through the door there was a floor covered with miniature grand pianos. Some of the workmen were trying them out. The pianos made real tones and you could hear the men play the scale when they pressed the right keys. 'This is our storeroom for all kinds of toy musical instruments.'

Besides the pianos there were harps, and cellos and mandolins and even tiny hand organs. Along the walls were so many brass trumpets hanging from hooks that they covered the walls nearly all the way around the room. And there were stacks of drums with shoulder straps and there were many, many harmonicas in all different sizes. People were trying them out and there was quite a din. You children looked a little bewildered.

'I'd better get you back home again before your mother and father wonder where you are. We can get your coats and boots and go right out to the sleigh,' exclaimed Santa.

When you went out you saw the red sleigh again. You climbed in beside Santa and he whistled. Eight reindeer sprang off the roofs and jumped into their harnesses strung out in front of the sleigh. They shook their bells.

Santa said, 'Now go slowly around the circle of buildings so Janet, Esther and Robert can see all of the workshops and storerooms with the toys inside before we go out the long tunnel of the ice igloo.'

All of Santa's workshops and the homes of the workers and Mrs. Claus and Santa and the reindeer were inside a giant igloo of ice. Light that shone from the North Pole outside glowed through the ice and lighted every surface inside.

The reindeer loped around the ring of buildings so you could see all of the places you had already visited and some others where toys were being made and stacked. They even whirled around a second time and then, whoosh! out through the tunnel you went and quickly rose into the sky around the North Pole standing above the great ice dome of the igloo.

The next thing you heard was, 'Bob, aren't you going to go down again?'

'You bet I am! C'mon girls, let me have the sled.'

'All right, Robert, you go down once more and Esther and I will meet you at the bottom. Then we must go home.'

"Oh, Father, won't you tell us again, right now?"

"Well, Esther, I'll tell the story to you again, of course, but maybe we will want to save it for next year at this time. Maybe after supper when you have helped Mother with the dishes I can read a story aloud for everyone. What story would you like?"

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