Back in 1994, when folks were beginning to get into the holiday spirit, a local chapter of the Knights of Columbus found an ugly hole at 2025 Magnolia Ave., where their beautiful Christmas tree had once stood. “I can’t believe they went to the trouble to dig that tree up,” Grand Knight Jerry Barkley said at the time. “We just hope that whoever got it was a needy family and they have a good Christmas on the Knights of Columbus…. I’ll light a candle for them at Mass.”
Sometimes, when the holiday season isn’t cause for Prozac or binge drinking, Christmas actually brings out the best in people. “Christmas appeals to the imagination,” local newspaper columnist David Harkness wrote in 1993, “to our love of color and beauty, and Christmas belongs to children, who have vivid imaginations and the glory of innocence.
“Christmas is for the young at heart—of all ages—who are also pure in heart…. In the legends of Christmas are variations of stories handed down from generation to generation—some pagan and some Christian—sprinkled with fact and fancy, reflecting the dreams, ideals, aspirations and folkways of people all over the world.”
Although the Christmas season is something of an unbearably complicated historical tapestry, depending on how far back you try to trace its origins, its message is still simple, so simple that even a child can divine the true meaning of Christmas.
“I love this holiday,” says Shane Rhyne, the revenue coordinator at the Holiday Inn Select on Henley Street. Every year since 1999, during Christmas in the City, Rhyne gets into character, donning the big red suit and the big white beard. “I’ve always just loved the magic of it, the suspension of disbelief—this guy who flies around and spreads his love,” Rhyne says. “I get to be him, and it’s a great way to experience Christmas. It’s better than any gift I’ll receive all year.”
Rhyne says that he fell into his Santa gig by accident. The whole Santa-thing started with a couple of parties with friends. It was his first time as the jolly, fat man. Then, quite unexpectedly, Mickey Mallonee, director of special events for the city, asked if he’d like to play Santa for Christmas in the City.
“I said, ‘Sure. That sounds fun,’” Rhyne recalls.
It probably wasn’t always as fun as it is now. At the end of the 19th century, the local “Santie” Claus would usually hand out bags of fruit and candy. He never had a white beard. In fact, more often than not, these Santies would sport blackface and employ a hyperbolized and stereotypical version of the black man’s dialect. He’d always introduce himself as “Santie’s helper.”
There are still many of Santa’s helpers running around today; they just aren’t in blackface anymore. We see them at just about every mall in America. Sometimes they’re even on the street corner, advertising holiday sales, or they’re out in front of your neighborhood grocery, ringing a bell for the Salvation Army.
We’ve even heard a report that there have been Santa sightings inside Wal-Mart. These Santas don’t have much going for them. No long lines of kids waiting to tell them what they want for Christmas; no photographs taken by parents who’re exalted at the thought of their child’s first visit with Santa. Their job is simply to mechanically spew a ho-ho-ho whenever anyone walks into the superstore.
"My family laughs at me,” Rhyne confesses, “because I did not want to have anything to do with Santa Claus when I was a kid. I’d get close to this guy, and he’d be just a big white face of hair.”
Rhyne has met a few kids who remind him of his early childhood, kids who’re seriously freaked out by Santa. It’s like that scene in A Christmas Story , when Ralphie goes to see Santa, who belts out fierce grunts of Ho! Ho! Ho!
Once, a young, shy girl climbed into Rhyne’s lap, and he asked, “Have you been a good girl?” She began to tremble, and shook her head no.
“I’ve been medium,” she said.
“Well,” Rhyne went on, “have you tried to be good?”
Another kid, who had escorted his younger sister to Santa’s lap, once said, “I don’t think I believe in you anymore.”
“Santa’s about the spirit,” Rhyne explained. “And you need to help keep that spirit alive for your little sister.”
But Santa has come to mean something more than the jolly fat man who gives toys to well-behaved children for no reason whatsoever. He’s become an unexpected exemplar of American capitalism, an all-too-easy example of our greed and excesses. An episode of South Park depicted Santa trapped in Iraq, receiving punishment for his crimes against humanity.
He’s fat for a reason, right?
And when we kick off the Christmas season in Knoxville, we light a tree strewn with more than 1,200 ornaments, and we sing yuletide classics while accompanied by a brass ensemble. Or perhaps Kingston Elementary’s “Wee Bee” chorus will be on hand to give the spectacle the right amount of youthful ambiance.
With Santa Claus (Rhyne) by his side, Mayor Bill Haslam commences the local season by flipping on hundreds of white bulbs that decorate the 40-foot artificial tree near Krutch Park. Cue “Joy to the World.”
In 2004, Haslam concluded the ceremony by boasting of downtown’s newfound energy. “We think downtown Knoxville is more alive than it has ever been,” he told a cheering crowd.
Santa and downtown redevelopment, it seems, are mutually inclusive.
“I love the traditional aspect of it, the roots of it.” Rhyne explains, distancing himself from any bad Santa stigma. “I love what Santa is supposed to mean…. I’ve always gone back and forth. If you met me years ago, you would’ve thought I was a Scrooge. I think I’ve lived the Charlie Brown Christmas, always asking, ‘What is Christmas?’”
Of course, the Santa myth has evolved into its own beast; whether we like it or not, our Santa is not the same guy who visited our grandparents. Our Santa drinks Coca-Cola on television; he even wears the orange and white of his corporate sponsors. It’s become something of a trend for anti-corporate-types to claim that Santa’s workshop is now in Atlanta, not at the North Pole.
Maybe the question isn’t what Santa meant, back before he was conscripted as one of the more potent advertising strategies in recent memory. Maybe the question is what should Santa mean? There were moments, when Rhyne was pulled along on horse and buggy through Chilhowee Park earlier this month. The band played “Here Comes Santa Claus,” and the kids went wild.
“It’s renewing,” Rhyne says. “It wears me out every year, I don’t ever deny that. It’s a good way to celebrate the holiday with total strangers.”
The true spirit of Santa lives on, breaking free of the corporate shell, if only for a moment. At least it’s a beautiful moment.
And when the WIVK Santa rode down Gay Street for this month’s First Friday, there was no shortage of screaming fans. Even a couple of twentysomething winos, who had somehow stumbled out of the Emporium Center with full glasses of wine, cheered as Santa went by on his float.
It’s become more festive, since 1993, when city officials decided to make the Christmas parade a nighttime event for the first time since 1965. That’s about as rootsy a Christmas as any of us can remember with any clarity.
But is there any more magic, or is Santa just another fat guy living in America? At West Town Mall, Santa looks more tired than he’s ever been. Between kids, he bends over and rests his elbows on his knees. Still, the kids come. He must be praying for
We catch Santa walking the mallways after his shift, his face lifeless after seven hours of snot-nosed kids telling him about toys. Kids say that they don’t believe in him. They say that they didn’t get what they wanted last year. They say quite a bit, too much for Santa’s aging ears. He’s probably had enough for one day.
“Hello, Santa!” I cheer.
Nothing. Not a word. He’s heading towards the exit, so I follow. I can hear his jingle bells jingling. He’s about 10 feet ahead now. Suddenly, a group of shoppers pass between us at the mall’s busiest thoroughfare. The bells stop jingling. Santa’s gone.