Gaye LeBaron: Remembering Santa Rosa’s Christmas stories

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“Never a Christmas morning, never an old year ends, but someone thinks of someone, old days, old times, old friends.”


Just the mention of old days, in the season to be jolly, sets me chasing memories. From the time the “Jingle Bells” starts, it rattles around in my mind, until the last candy cane falls from the tree. It jump-starts recollection of those oft-told seasonal tales that come back like old friends at the Little Drummer Boy’s first pa-rum-pa-pum-pum of the holidays.

Let me assure you, there are enough classic Christmas stories in this old town’s history to keep a stand-up comic in a Santa suit on his feet for hours.

One of them, in fact, is about a Santa suit.

That would be Addie Whitesell, who rode her bicycle around Rincon Valley in the mid-20th century, delivering her Avon products, and, in the season, was Santa Claus.

She began in 1959 in a homemade Santa outfit and cotton beard, visiting the neighbor kids. She enjoyed it so much that when her husband in 1962 gave her $100 with instructions to “buy yourself something nice for Christmas,” she went to FAO Schwartz in San Francisco (ahh, the memories) and bought a high-fashion Santa suit. It included a silky beard, which she referred to as “my fur piece.”

For 25 years, at Christmastime, the sight of Addie, sometimes on her bicycle, in her designer Santa suit was everywhere — parades, schools, holiday parties, or on front porches with Avon deliveries and toys if there were children.

Addie was 85 when she died in 1995, not so very long after a broken hip ended her long run as Santa.


Another Santa story which has etched itself into the collective memory of those who heard it firsthand happened on a late December night more than 50 years ago on the street known as Christmas Tree Lane.

That decorated neighborhood was probably the first, the progenitor of Walnut Court and all the other pockets of electronic wizardry we have today.

The line of slow-moving cars and crowded sidewalks dates to the late 1950s when a contractor named Cal Chamberlain, who lived in the 2900 block of Hartley Drive, bought a pickup load of Christmas trees. He went door-to-door, including on the winding streets — Hermit Way and Webb Drive — between Montgomery Drive and Santa Rosa Creek, giving the trees to neighbors and rallying them to decorate, decorate, decorate.

Most did just that. And still do. And resident Carl Bell took it a step further and spent chilly evenings handing out candy canes as the first of a long line of Christmas Tree Lane Santa Clauses.

This neighborly enthusiasm produced some remarkable tableaus, not the least of which was an amazingly patient boxer dog that sat every night next to the sleigh in a lawn display — wearing antlers.

Among the participating families was that of BB and Jim Stockman (Jim being one of the developers involved in the creation of the Flamingo Hotel here).

The Stockman family lived on Hermit Way and had a fine display, with an inflatable Santa, on the front porch.

One evening, when the elders were elsewhere, their kids — or at least one kid and friends — took Santa Claus off the front porch, let out some air to make him droop, and hanged him from a second-floor window.


What happened next could be taken straight out of a National Lampoon movie. Sounds of sudden braking, horns honking and shrieks of disbelief. Sobbing children, outraged parents, neighbors hammering on the door, calls to the police.

Needless to say, Santa was cut down immediately (just before his last gasp?). And, if I was told correctly, the police chief, the legendary Dutch Flohr, actually tracked down the Stockmans at a party (remember, the cellphone was science fiction in those years), which brought them home at top speed.

By the time they arrived, peace on earth (at least on Hermit Way) had been restored, although perhaps not good will to (young) men for a day or two.

Thinking about it now, it may have been more David Sedaris than Chevy Chase.


There are others stories of course. We’ve all got our own favorites — about trees that won’t stand straight and cats that climb them and dogs that lift a leg as a salute to the over-shopping season.

There are mock-tragic tales of children forced to pose unwillingly for Christmas card photos, of too-clever 10-year-olds who learned the sad consequences of the illegal gift search, of that definitive moment when the first grade wise-guy (there is always one) explodes the treasured Christmas myth.

There’s also the “Pignelligan,” which is not a myth but rather an odd name for a boisterous, alcohol-induced wild pig roast at the Elks Club at Fourth and A streets held each fall in the decades of the Depression and World War II. The event raised enough money to buy Christmas toys, clothes and food baskets for as many poor children as the California Theater would hold.

The name: It came from the event’s founder, a bachelor businessman named Maury Nelligan, who spent a lots of hours at the Elks Club where the card room and bar were the big attractions. “Maury’s Stories” of Santa Rosa’s “ drinking days” abound. But none show us his heart of gold like the Pignelligan.


Now let’s talk a little about that beginning verse.

It’s a verse — an old-fashioned sort of verse, the kind my mother liked, and under duress I will admit it does strike a Christmas chord for me as well.

If you are old enough to remember the days before Grandma got run over by a reindeer I’ll bet you’ve heard it.

It was the days when you left a half-pint of brandy on top of the garbage can for the guys who picked it up and dumped it in the truck. It was the days when you gave a generous Christmas tip, maybe two dollars, to the paperboy when he came (always the week before Christmas) to collect for December. Days when there was no Black Friday or Cyber Monday or Giving Tuesday but we still had gifts to put under our tree.

I’ve spent an hour or so in the season over the last three decades trying to establish the authorship of this kernel of Christmas wisdom, assuming it was from the sentimental days of American poetry.

I couldn’t find it in any of the “Index of First Lines” lists in my multiple anthologies. Finally, last week, with the tree in the stand and the Starcross wreath on the door, desperation set in and I “Googled” it.

The search took me to the catalog of copyright entries for 1965, where I learned it was not a kernel of wisdom from a famous poet, nor could I know the author’s name. It’s a Christmas card verse from 1965, copyrighted by the card company, author unknown.

Too bad, there is certainly credit due.

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