(Image: Don and Evelyn Copenhaver as Santa and Mrs. Claus. Image courtesy of Kay Copenhaver Woody.)
Every year Santa and Mrs. Claus come down from the North Pole to visit Lubbock’s Santa Land for two weeks. We spoke to jolly old St. Nick who said there’s nothing in the world like seeing a child’s face light up with amazement at the sight of Santa.
“It’s phenomenal,” Santa said. And by Santa, we mean Bruce Rhodes, a city employee who has played Santa for about 10 years.
“I love it. I’m addicted to it,” Rhodes said. “This kind of fills my joy cup for the year.”
The event features a festive holiday village, a 50-foot Christmas tree, animated displays and Santa’s Workshop in Mackenzie Park. It’s free.
“Attendance numbers have ranged from 32,000-46,000 since 2009,” Karen Penkert, Lubbock’s recreation services superintendent said.
The parents and children are often low income, Rhodes said.
“They can’t afford to go someplace and have pictures of their children made with Santa,” Rhodes said. “We’re here. There’s no fee. They come in, they bring their camera, they bring their phone, and they can take as many pictures as they want of their children with Santa.”
“It gives an opportunity that some people may not have if the city didn’t offer this,” Rhodes said.
This is the 67th Santa Land and there’s a long and interesting history.
They always knew our names
Stacy Clements, a former supervisor at Santa Land, said her job was to make sure Santa got there on time and got breaks, make sure the trash got picked up and generally make sure everything was good and safe. She did this for about 10 years. She came to the job with her own set of childhood memories.
“I remember that Mr. and Mrs. Claus always – it seemed like they always knew our names,” Clements said.
The reindeer were animated when she was a kid – bobbing their heads in the stable. And they were still there when she became the supervisor.
“That was still there, and I loved it. That was a great memory when I was a kid.” Clements said. Her favorite adult memory is the lighting of the tree on the first night each year.
She’s not the only one to feel nostalgia as she witnessed parents and grandparents coming from all over the area to share the same thing they had once experienced as a child.
“The history of what the city has done is amazing,” Clements said.
Not a poodle puppy
For more than 30 years (1963 – 1994), Santa and Mrs. Claus were like a father and mother to Pam Holubec. Actually – family secret – they really were her father and mother.
Holubec remembered back to her early teens when her dad got a call from A.C. “Stumpy” Hamilton, the city’s director of parks and recreation.
“They had a poodle, and so we four kids just knew they were going to come back with a poodle puppy,” Holubec said.
“He wanted to talk with (them) about being Mr. and Mrs. Claus at Santa Land,” Holubec said. “We knew, but we were not allowed to divulge any of that information to our friends. Nor did my mother and daddy.”
“People would come up to mother and say, ‘You look so much like Mrs. Claus. Are you Mrs. Claus?’ And she would smile,” Holubec said. “Mrs. Claus and Evelyn Copenhaver were never one and the same.”
One year, Holubec’s cousin, Kay Copenhaver Woody, figured out Mrs. Claus’ real identity at Santa Land while sitting on her lap.
“I leaned over to her, and I said, ‘Are you Aunt Evelyn?’ She said, ‘No. I’m Mrs. Claus,’” Woody said. But Woody was a stubborn little girl and persisted.
“And she told me, ‘Don’t you ever, ever, ever tell anybody.’”
“And I never did,” Woody added.
‘They didn’t have coats’
Don and Evelyn both worked, but Don worked two jobs.
“Mother and daddy were pretty much poor as church mice,” Holubec said. But Don would deliver for Meals on Wheels and volunteer with St. Luke’s program to help the homeless.
One year a family with kids came through Santa Land, Holubec said.
“It was cold – the kids were barefoot. They didn’t have coats,” she said. “Daddy called one of the big elves over and said, ‘I want you to get their name and address and information.’ He arranged for a box of clothing and some food to be taken out to that family.”
But they gave much more than that.
“Their anniversary was December the 14th. Every single anniversary for 32 years was spent at Santa Land,” Holubec said.
Don refused to leave Santa Land until every kid in line got to sit in Santa’s lap – often past 10:30 p.m. He got up at 2 a.m. to work a cleaning job, Holubec said. Then, it was off to load a truck and complete his bread delivery route.
Santa did not get much sleep for the two weeks leading up to Christmas.
“Mother and daddy, mother particularly, felt like it was just a huge honor,” Holubec said.
Don’t flirt with my mother
The family has story after story from Santa Land – some touching, some sad and some amusing. Evelyn was only in her 30s when she started playing Mrs. Claus.
“Oh my goodness, I’ll never forget,” Holubec said. “There was a man who came through and kind of flirted with her. And I thought, ‘Ohh, that is my mother!”
“You don’t flirt with my mother!” she thought – but did not say out loud.
One year a man proposed marriage to his girlfriend at Santa Land. He slipped a ring to Santa and had his girlfriend sit in Santa’s lap.
Letters to Santa were both naughty and nice.
One boy wrote to Santa, “Merry Christmas, if you bring me what I want.”
A little girl’s letter to Santa said, “I want a piece of cheese for my cat in his stocking. His stocking is the smallest. So please put something in his stocking.”
One letter said, “I want everyone to have a Merry, Merry Christmas and for all of the homeless to have a good Christmas.”
“That’s pretty sweet,” Holubec said.
In 1987, ABC’s Good Morning America flew the Copenhavers to New York to be interviewed on TV.
It reached a point where Santa was getting old. He couldn’t pick up the kids anymore. Holubec cried as she read aloud her father’s goodbye poem to the community.
“The time, it has come, with regret and tears.
We will have to quit after thirty-two years.
The pleasure has been ours, and with love in our chest,
We’ve given to you our very best.”
(See the full poem down below.)
(Images in slideshow courtesy of Kay Copenhaver Woody)
Tracing it back to the start
Nowadays, the city says Santa Land was established in 1956. But as you’ll soon read, it’s actually hard to pick a specific date.
The Lubbock Morning Avalanche (distinct from the Lubbock Evening Journal), reported in March 1943, the City Council approved a brand-new recreation department. A year later, the same Stumpy Hamilton who would later recruit the Copenhavers for Santa Land took the job of assistant superintendent of the recreation department.
In 1944, as reported by the Morning Avalanche, the city recreation department announced a community event with a special visit from Santa at 16th Street and Avenue J. Up to 1,000 children were expected.
In 1945, Hamilton announced in the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, Santa would be at two locations with the Recreation Department acting as event sponsor – 16th Street and Avenue J along with 6th Street and Avenue B.
Hamilton said the visits, “were not just for ‘under-privileged’ children,” but for all youngsters in Lubbock.
“Hamilton said both buildings had been elaborately decorated for the occasion,” the A-J said.
From 1946 through 1952, Santa would arrive every year in Lubbock via Pioneer Air Lines – sponsored by the Recreation Department. A 1946 photo showed an “admiring throng” at Broadway and Avenue J as Santa made his way through downtown in a parade.
In 1953 and 1954, Santa moved from one park to the next each day – using the city Recreation Department’s show wagon as his headquarters.
Lubbocklights.com could not locate records for 1955.
In 1956, Elks Lodge No. 1348 and the city teamed up to help Santa visit a list of locations over several days.
“Santa Claus will be furnished through cooperation of the city Recreation Department,” the A-J reported on December 16.
In 1957, an event advertised as “Santa’s Headquarters” in the Avenue Q Park, now called Mose Hood Park, attracted 60,000 visitors as Santa set up daily from 4-8 p.m. from December 16 through Christmas Eve, according to the Evening Journal.
In January 1958, the city announced an “ambitious holiday project” for the upcoming Christmas season called Santa Land.
Santa Land locations
• Mose Hood Park: opening through 1973
• Clapp Park: 1974 to the 1990s
• Civic Center: 1990s
• Mackenzie Park: 2002 through the present
The 1973 crisis
The city nearly shut down Santa Land in 1973 because of a national energy crisis, which sparked something of a local crisis.
“I voted against Santa Land,” said councilman Bryce Campbell, as quoted in the November 9 edition of the Avalanche Journal. The city thought it could save $1,200 in electricity. The cost of running Santa Land that year was $3,500.
By November 12, the A-J reported a phone bank, operated by the Veterans of Foreign Wars women’s auxiliary, accepted pledges to cut back on power.
“Already many businesses have promised to turn off neon signs for a specified length of time each day,” the A-J said.
“We have not been turned down by one business,” one phone bank organizer told the A-J.
A day later, the A-J reported that the city council reversed itself. The citizens and businesses of Lubbock saved Santa Land.
It turns out, becoming Santa is easier than slapping a heretic in the face – a reference to the mythology of the original St. Nicholas who lived in the 4th century.
Rhodes said some dear friends of his were Mr. and Mrs. Claus. They asked him to fill in on the nights when they were not there.
“I was able to step up and have done it since,” Rhodes said. Rhodes has a backup Santa which allows him to work nine evenings and take a break for the other four. The backup is a friend he approached years ago.
“He’s like, ‘Absolutely, I’m interested.’ And he’s as addicted to it as I am,” Rhodes said.
“To do this 13 nights in a row, man, you’re exhausted. It’ll whip your tail,” Rhodes said. “I did it one year, and I won’t do that again.”
Just like the Copenhavers, collected special stories, so does Rhodes.
“Had a young girl come in and sit down,” Rhodes recalled. “We talked for a moment, and I asked her what she wanted. And she’s like, ‘I want my daddy back.’”
“And I’m like, ‘Well, what happened?’ She goes, ‘Well, he died about two weeks ago.’ And it just crushed me,” Rhodes continued. “I look up and mama is in tears.”
“I explained to her that is something a little bit beyond Santa’s abilities.”
Using non-verbal cues from mom, Rhodes was able to confidently promise the girl she could get something nice to remember her daddy.
Another child came for about five years with a special Coke bottle to give Santa each year.
“They would go search through this grocery store and find that Coke bottle that said Santa just so he could bring it to me in the Santa House.”
In one case, a small child asked Santa if mommy and daddy could get married.
“Mom was all giggles and laughs,” Rhodes said. “And when she turned around, dad’s down on one knee.”
“That was phenomenal.”
Rhodes remembers taking his own kids to Santa Land.
“I know in talking with people who grew up in Lubbock, Santa Land is a fixture,” Rhodes said. “It is something that has been here, and I think in their mind it should always be here.”
The following is the full text of the Copenhaver’s goodbye poem:
T’was Just After Christmas
It is months after Christmas, and here at our house
there is a decision to make for me and my spouse.
The work has been fun, the love has been great
from the children we love and what they anticipate.
The seasons have come and gone like a flash;
it seems like our lives have been a mad dash.
The love of the children has been like no other;
the love we have received from child, father and mother.
The thoughts in their heads come with abound;
the gleam in their eyes comes with astound.
We love what we do, and the stories they tell;
the love we receive can never excel.
As engrossed as I get with the stories I hear,
I listen real close with one bended ear
(the other I keep open to what Mrs. Santa tells dear).
She tells of the candy and cookies she makes,
of feeding the reindeer, and the posthaste.
The time, it has come, with regret and tears;
we will have to quit after thirty-two years.
The pleasure has been ours, and with love in our chest,
We’ve given to you our very best.
We have served with no qualms, pains or regrets;
we know that others will give it their best.
So an early “adieu” with a heart that is tight,
MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL, AND TO ALL A GOOD NIGHT!
Love, Mr. & Mrs. Santa Claus