At Island Falls, Santa's visit at Christmas was one of the major events of the year. In the winding-down days of the fall school term, the annual school Christmas Concert heralded the coming of good times. By this time, the Community Club had also made Christmas preparations, of which I became aware one day when Bert Pelletier allowed a friend and I into the back room of the commissary, perhaps to return some glass pop bottles to their wooden crates. There, we happened to see a room of shelves, and on those shelves were piles of brown paper packages bearing the distinctive blue and red Eaton's shipping labels. A closer look revealed notations such as: "Boy, 11 years" and "Girl, 8 years". I realized what they signified, but in no way did that knowledge spoil my eager anticipation of the Santa Claus ceremony.
The Santa Claus visit to Island Falls was an ingenious piece of children's entertainment. Every year on Christmas Eve, all the children from Camp gathered in the theatre above the school rooms at the back of the Community Hall. The youngest were seated in the front rows, older ones further back; the parents stayed mostly out of the way. We watched a "talent show" while waiting for the more important business of Santa Claus handing out his gifts.
One particular Christmas Eve, I remember walking alone to the Hall, dressed in my best clothes. I was wearing summer shoes which slipped and slid on the hard-packed snow of the sidewalk. On "West Street", somewhere between Leslie’s house and the cold storage plant, there was a yard light high on a pole. I stopped for a while to look up to watch big snowflakes fall slowly towards me through the cone of light. They hit me with little splashes of cold on my eyelids, cheeks and lips. I was in no hurry because I was trying to make the evening last as long as possible.
Having entered the Hall through the big front door, as always, the first thing I did was brush the snow off my feet, scrub my shoes on the bristle mat, and hang my coat in the cloak room just inside the door. I was old enough to reach one of the brass hooks on the upper row. Since the centre of activity was the theatre at the opposite end of the Hall, I walked down the short flight of steps through a doorway into the "pool room", perhaps taking a quick gulp of icy cold river water from the copper fountain in the corner behind the ping pong table. I then crossed the full length of the wood gymnasium floor which, in a week’s time, would be covered with tables for the New Years banquet, the other highlight of the season.
The way to the theater was through a curtained doorway leading to the anteroom of the two school rooms, Junior and Senior, then up two full flights of stairs, past the movie projector room with its white plaster walls and the tiny 16 mm projector room to the top landing at the back of the auditorium. From there, I could look down over the rows of chairs. Once my friends were spotted, it was a quick hop, step and jump down some wide stairs, a side-slip through an aisle and a flop onto the fold-down seat of a molded plywood chair. I looked around and saw the brown donna-conna walls of the auditorium. They were not much decorated, but at the front was a big, sparkling evergreen tree standing on the side opposite the fire escape door, and behind it the stage on which the preliminaries would be performed.
I was old enough to understand the part Community Club members played in the Ceremony but young enough to relish the thought of seeing Santa, even though I knew he would actually be one of the men of the Camp dressed up in a red suit and white beard. During the performances, we were squirmy but reasonably well-behaved. Marg Hammond sang O Holy Night that night. That item was really good, but most of the rest I cannot remember.
In between presentations from the program, to help build the level of excitement, the master of ceremonies (Fred Bowman perhaps) read progress reports relayed to him by telephone (supposedly) from the first operator (probably Bill Southworth), who was on duty down at the power plant, poor fellow. He was monitoring Santa's progress by radio (we all knew that big radio) and his messages read, "A large sleigh pulled by eight reindeer has been spotted heading south by Alf Olson at Whitesand" and the like. The final message placed Santa very, very close to Island Falls.
Shortly after that, the festivities came to a stop and we all listened carefully for telltale noises outside. There it was! The sound of bells! Followed by thumping great footsteps coming up the outside stairs. Then the fire escape door opened and in came a flurry of snow, a blast of icy air, and Santa Claus. There he stood, huffing and stamping his feet, a big sack over his shoulder! Wow! What a moment! All us kids were just entranced, the younger ones agape, the older ones whispering to each other, trying to guess which dad was Santa that year! Was it Ernie Westbury??
Then came the gift presentation by Santa and his helpers. Of course, the packages had been personalized with the names of individual children, and so we were called up onto the stage, one at a time, to receive them. This was our peak moment, the evening's climax to which the Club committee had skillfully brought us. It was a quintessential Christmas. There we were, all together, our whole world with us in the auditorium. Well done! No child ever had a better Christmas, or a better sense of belonging to a community. Looking back, I now realize it was a great privilege to be there, at that time, with those wonderful people.
And that splendid event was only the beginning, for afterwards it was still Christmas Eve, and we could return to our homes and more gifts under our own Christmas trees. Then after that was Christmas morning and gift sharing with our families in our cozy houses. Then there was playing outside in the snow and visiting our friends to see what they had got for Christmas. Even then, when Christmas was over, we could still look forward to a precious week of fun and freedom, followed by another wonderful Island Falls "Community Classic", our annual New Year's Banquet. But that's a subject for another recollection.