Hot-Footed for Santa in 1950s Muskoka
Join journalist, author, book publisher, and previous MP Patrick Boyer as he takes us through what it was like to celebrate the holiday season as a child in 1950s Muskoka.
Hot-Footed for Santa in 1950s Muskoka
As every Muskokan knows, after the coloured leaves of autumn, the dark days before Christmas descend, then snow falls, and the temperature drops.
Most everything I did in those winters of the 1950s – playing hockey on the road or at Bracebridge arena, delivering the daily news to Toronto Telegram subscribers on my paper route, hiking out of town to cut a Christmas tree – was a satisfying adventure – except that, almost always, my toes froze.
When time came for the Bracebridge Santa Claus parade, I’d stand for frigid hours in the main street sidewalk’s salty slush, staying warm by clapping my hands, jumping up and down, exhaling a cloud of icy fog, tightening my ear muffs, and pulling my toque further down over my head.
My tearing eyes and runny nose turned to ice on my cheeks and upper lip. My feet were freezing. But I refused to abandon my front row vantage point.
As a nine-year old, living years before revolutionary space-age winter gear, in a family unable to afford furs and animal skins, and not yet graduated to lined high-cut leather boots and heavy wool socks, I wore rubberized canvas galoshes over my leather shoes. Boys couldn’t let on that the cold mattered.
Up and down the street, everybody else appeared to be happily coping. I couldn’t bail. Besides, Mom was a Stoic and ever since I’d begun listening, she’d been imparting ancient Greek virtues about the nobility of self-reliance, suffering in silence, not burdening others with personal problems. You could prove you were becoming a man just by standing there and more or less freezing.
I stoically held my ground, and as the pain in my feet changed to mere numbness, I accepted the soundness of Mom’s thinking.
With my feet no longer so cold, the exhilarating suspense of the day took over. Enthusiasm prevailed along the crowded main street. Townsfolk shouted cheery banalities across the closed off roadway to friends they recognized in the throng, killing time with Christmassy celebration, believing that Bracebridge’s Santa Claus parade would, eventually, materialize.
One year I found myself standing on a float in the parade, instead, a participant rather than an observer. It was more exciting gaining a different perspective, though I missed seeing other floats and hearing the bands go by. And though immensely proud to be in skates and wearing my hockey uniform, posing on that float did not circulate warming blood the way a fast rush on goal did. My feel still felt like blocks of ice. From any angle, I resigned myself, frozen feet and Santa’s parade were synonymous.
As the parade almost ended, I looked up mesmerized, gazing at the final float. Waving to the deer and huge red sleigh, a robust Ho-Ho greeting and wave back came down from the red-coated Great One himself.
A couple hours later back home I extracted myself from bundled clothing, including boots and socks. Mom glanced at my feet, felt them, and exclaimed, “They’re frozen!” That was why I couldn’t feel the cold.
I wanted to stand on a hot-air register, but the furnace two floors below had been banked for the weekend, to save firewood. We lived in a modest apartment over our family’s newspaper office; with the print shop closed Saturday afternoon and Sunday, the place didn’t need to be warm for the workers. So we chilled upstairs. Mom ran cold water into a tub. I immersed my feet to gradually restore them to normal body temperature.
Over the next hour, my earlier bliss about seeing Santa in the flesh was vaporized by my immediate agony. The Stoic was tested to the limits of boyhood bravado. But I realized my excruciating torture, to be worth anything, had to be exploited. Stoics didn’t understand modern conditions. Silent suffering was replaced by groans. Groans escalated to wails. Wails turned to screams. With my limited knowledge as a small-town kid, I imagined the dire plight of someone suffering pain had never before been so dramatically showcased.
However, I saw no immediate benefit. Nor had my un-Stoic performance produced any noticeable benefit for the months that followed. Only by the next winter, when Santa’s annual procession again loomed, did I discover Mom’s patient resolve.
On Saturday morning of parade day she unveiled a new product, “Thermogene,” a heat-generating material patented by England’s Beecham company, which she’d purchased at the local hardware or pharmacy. Mom pulled pink spun wool out of a cardboard carton.
It looked like candy floss from the Fall Fair, or the fibreglass insulation house builders were now placing between the joists of exterior walls. The impregnated Thermogene fibre material was bound around my bare feet, then those of my younger sister. We had the latest thing in preparations for wintery events. There’d be, I happily realized, no repetition of prior years’ suffering.
This new way of keeping people warm could even generate more heat, Mom noticed glancing at Tips for Use, if the pink wrap was sprinkled with certain liquids, such as eau de cologne. Remembering my wails of agony, she generously sprinkled plenty from her bottle of watery alcohol perfumed with essential fruit oils all over the fibres, to super-activate the Thermogene. Then on went socks and boots, which I was happy covered the unmanly perfume-like smell my feet now gave off.
It was great to be alive in the Fifties. Scientists made new discoveries, manufacturers applied the science, and attentive mothers looked for new products to enhance living. With Thermogene, they’d teamed up to eliminate a drawback of our wonderland winters.
My sister and I slipped and slid down a laneway, with a cold wind against our faces, toward Main Street, joining Saturday’s festive crowd. Nobody knew our secret: applied-science protecting us against frozen feet. Standing on chilling pavement of an icy street, I savoured the indoor comfort.
Santa’s parade reprised itself from the year before, several floats almost identical to ones that’d passed by me twelve months earlier. But the show was bigger in scale, began closer to its announced start time, and I felt comfy waiting for Santa’s arrival. Life in the Fifties just kept getting better.
When Bracebridge’s Christmas parade passes through the business section downtown, the fun does not end. It’s just beginning. I watched the back of the parade – and saw Santa still waving – as it turned out of sight to complete the tour through other streets. The procession would climb one of the town’s many steep hills, turn another corner and proceed toward Memorial Park for the grand finale in Santa action. We did not follow, but took a more direct route to the park, keen with seasonal competition to be close to the front of the line.
Snow was falling when Alison and I got there, everything held still in muffled shades of white and grey. I felt cheered by the colourful strings of overhead lights and the Santa songs playing over loud speakers. I especially felt good because my feet weren’t cold. If anything, they were feeling rather warm.
Once his sleigh arrived at the park, Santa mounted a throne in the central bandstand. Around it, hundreds of pairs of feet had pummelled the snow flat. The crowd spread into an ill-formed queue of kids hoping to meet Santa and talk to him in person. That moment of memorable encounter established conclusively that Santa Claus was real, exhaled steamy breath, had human hands, and spoke English. But it was brief.
Barked instructions pummelled us like inbound snowballs: “Move along, others are waiting!” “Make room for others!” “Move along if you want your candies!”
The surge carried the willing and unwilling alike to the back of the bandstand and down its rear steps. As we left, women reached into boxes decorated with Christmas wrapping paper and handed us little brown paper bags.
“Can I have one for my sister, please? She’s sick and couldn’t come today,” a kid ahead of us asked in an almost tearful plea. I knew he did not have a sister. But the dispenser of sugary medicaments didn’t, or she was overcome by the feeling of goodwill that blossoms amidst winter’s darkest and coldest days of Christmastime, or else she just wanted to keep the kids moving without making a scene. When I saw how well his ploy worked, I was chagrined. My sister was with me. I thanked the woman for my single bag and kept going.
Twisting open the paper top, I found Christmas candies nestled in the bottom, a sweet souvenir of my direct encounter with Santa. My sister and I would each finish them off as we headed home. However, we dallied along, no rush.
I was thinking happily about what a great day it had been, and about the joyful times that lay ahead – endless hours of road hockey without feeling the cold. My feet were feeling unbelievably warm. We paused to defend ourselves from an ineffectual snowball attack. Then, still not cold, we made snow angels. But it had grown dark, and was suppertime when we climbed the stairs to our family’s apartment.
Now my feet were really hurting and I couldn’t help gasping. My sister appeared more stoic, or benefitted from a higher female pain threshold, or maybe had less eau de cologne on her Thermogene. Even so, when the socks came off and our throbbing feet glowed as red as Santa’s sleigh, Mom realized there might be a problem this year, too. Just the opposite, though – not frozen feet but cooked ones.
A tub of cold water seemed to me an even better solution than it had the year before. But Mom was puzzling about what had happened, and what she should do. My sister was now crying. I was shouting, writhing in a chair, with my feet in hell.
Mom retrieved Beecham’s packing box. Fine print instructions, overlooked in the hurry to get ready for Santa, stipulated that because Thermogene generated exceptional warmth it was for short-term use only, not to exceed two hours in any circumstances. Should Thermogene be sprinkled with activating liquid, the duration must be shortened. We’d been protected by it since noon. It was now six o’clock.
Thermogene-scorched feet, on which no treatment worked, were doubtless suffered by others, too, in England and wherever else Beecham sold its patented warming fabric. That would explain why this product, a brief mid-twentieth century phenomenon, is no longer on the market . . . and happily forgotten.
But being hot-footed for Santa was not the end of my strange connections with this make-believe personage. It was just the beginning.
After a brief break, we’ll see how Santa and Mrs. Clause themselves, like so many other cottagers in the 1950s, became seasonal Muskokans – and how I laid an egg for Santa.
Welcome back. I’m Patrick Boyer and for this program we are recalling several aspects of Santa’s role in Muskoka life during the 1950s.
In that post-war economic boom, prosperity rolled across Ontario as people made up for two decades of depravation. Most families now owned a car and many had cottages, which were popping up like mushrooms around Muskoka’s lakes.
Ontario’s spinal column, Highway 11, was the main street of many towns, including Gravenhurst, Bracebridge, and Huntsville. With so many cars and trucks, they became a series of slow-moving parking lots. The Department of Highways set about building bypasses, for the benefit of travellers and locals alike.
Soon trans-Canada traffic could keep rolling steadily to its destination, while a quainter pace could once again settle over our main streets. Yet not too quaint! What if no tourists came? What if they now just “by-passed” Muskoka’s towns?
Tourism was a pillar of Muskoka’s economy. In Bracebridge, several stalwarts of the town, men of foresight, gathered to talk it over. My father Bob Boyer, editor of the Muskoka Herald newspaper and in 1955 elected Muskoka’s representative in Ontario’s legislature, was one of the strong proponents of counterbalancing Highway 11’s east side by-pass by creating a tourist attraction on the town’s west side.
In 1954 these serious adults latched onto the fictitious character of Santa Claus for a theme park attraction. They formed a private company, Santa’s Village Ltd., with my Dad its first president. They raised money, promoted the project, and the next year Santa’s Village, on the Muskoka River downstream from Bracebridge, was officially opened before a crowd of ten thousand people by Ontario Premier Leslie Frost.
In the 65 years since, Santa’s Village would put Bracebridge on the map, entertain thousands of people, employ many hundreds, and bring millions of dollars into central Muskoka’s economy, steadily evolving over time with peoples’ changing expectations and advancing technologies.
When it began, Santa’s Village perfectly captured the mood of the Fifties, including authentic efforts to create the atmosphere of legendary make-believe characters. In addition to Santa, the all-time champion of imaginary persons, there were elves, the Mad Hatter, Little Miss Moffatt, Robin Hood, even the Goose that Laid the Golden Egg.
In 1960, like so many Muskoka teens, my first real summer job was at Santa’s Village. I crossed over into the ranks of those who perpetuate imagined realities.
About 7:30 each morning general manager Clarence Green picked up a number of us teen employees who’d assemble at street corners in town and drive us in his station wagon down the river road to the village of log cabins and magic.
I’d enter the administration building wearing running shoes, slacks, and T-shirt. Before long I’d step out the other side into the Enchanted Forest in green leotards, a light green shirt with billowy sleeves, and dark green corduroy tunic.
If legendary Santa Claus could dwell here, the legend of Robin Hood could also be kept alive. Completing the transformation were my red leather boots, large leather belt, and over-the-shoulder belting with arrow quiver riding my back. Atop my head was the finishing touch of Robin’s garment – all made by a theatrical costume company in Toronto – a high pointed green felt cap, with a long stylish red feather curving backward at its side.
At Santa’s Village, Robin Hood did not rob the rich to aid the poor – that was the job of those selling souvenirs in the gift stores and soft drinks in the Ginger Bread Shop. Amidst these buildings, Robin ran the archery range for the benefit of sporting visitors. No extra fee, you could shoot arrows all day if you wanted to.
Muskoka’s section of Sherwood Forest had old-growth pines along the sides of the shooting range, a floor of soft amber pine needles, and a roped off quadrant behind which, from 40 feet, guest members of Robin’s merry band selected bows from hooks around a giant pine and fired their allotment of metal-tipped arrows at the targets, a big central one flanked by two smaller ones.
The heavy brown paper targets, printed with large coloured concentric circles diminishing to a smaller black one dead centre – the so-called bull’s eye – were set against stacked bails of hay, backstopped by ¾ inch plywood, behind which rose a steep slope of rock outcropping, then spooky primeval forest.
When all the arrows had been shot, Robin would collect them – some lying just a few pathetic feet inside the rope where the archer tourists stood, but most in the general vicinity of the targets, some having struck with enough force to lodge in the cardboard circles. A few had careened off rocks and trees. I’d always keep an eye where they’d gone, up the hill and into the woods. It was a matter of pride to return with the full complement of 30 arrows, and distribute five each into the half-dozen upturned clay tiles at the firing line.
When targets became too perforated and began disintegrating, Robin replaced them. Once the broken and lost arrows reduced the arsenal below 25 or so, he’d fetch new ones from supplies and take pleasure shooting them himself.
I’d always check to see that all the arrows had been shot before I’d start my routine of fetching them. Every now and then I’d be at the target plucking out deeply embedded shafts – evidence that some strong fellows in their early twenties, or the occasional marksman, had strolled into Sherwood Forest – then hear the sickening sound of a swish and thwack.
An arrow had been shot into the target right beside me. I’d turn around, and a guy who’d hidden an arrow from view until I’d gone up and had my back to him, had responded to a dare by his buddies. They’d begin laughing as they cavalierly strolled on to see what other “sport” they could make at this place intended to enchant children and the young at heart.
However, such occupational hazards were more than compensated for when several late teenage girls would stroll by, or better still, just one who wanted to break free from her parents and kid brother and was prepared to spend all morning learning archery. Robin, an attentive instructor, was happy to at least steal a warm smile from sparkling eyes as he imparted Cupid lessons on how to hold a bow and shoot arrows, in a place where it was never just the forest that could be enchanting.
But Santa’s Village had more roles by which to enchant visitors than it had employees. This meant Robin Hood, twice a day, slipped away from his archery range to the main building change rooms.
Off came my handsome feather cap, my quiver and belting, my green vest, flouncy shirt, even the great red boots and green leotards. For a moment, I’d reverted to just another skinny 15-year-old kid in his underpants.
However, I was working at Santa’s Summer Home, place of fantasy.
Reaching now for the orange leotards, I pulled them on to begin my transformation. After tying the laces on my running shoes, I clipped orange webbed feet over them. I was ready, but needed two items. In the corner sat a huge goose of fibreglass and paper mâché over a wooden frame. Lifting her I struggling up the basement steps, then returned and fetched the second item. On the concrete landing, with a Herculean heave upwards, I got the hollow part of the huge bird over me. It was quite heavy, though no boy would ever admit that.
After a couple of weeks in this role, I’d perfected a procedure to get out the door. Now free to roam the grounds, I’d waddle off in the direction of some tourists, especially any with younger children.
“Oh, lookit Mommy, look at that bird!” Some were startled, some awe-struck, not a few began to cry until judging that wasn’t the right response so just gazed with saucer-wide eyes.
I’d then squat. After they drew nearer to touch or take photos, I’d rise up, leaving behind the second item – a huge golden egg.
“Mommy, Mommy!” shrieked excited voices as I waddled off, “the bird left something. Lookit!”
“Why children,” wise mothers would whisper, “that’s the Goose that lays the Golden Egg!”
Following each dramatic episodic of this sort, I’d wend my circular way back, just as the kids began screaming excitedly, “Can we keep it mom, eh?, can we keep the egg?” I’d settle back down over my coveted produce. Rising, with egg again concealed inside the contraption, I headed off in search of new adventures as Mom pressed her memory, or imagination, to explain the saga of this feathered creature with the Midas touch.
From the outside, of course, people saw a wonderfully shaped bird. White, she was, with a long neck curving back to a fine head with dark beak and lively painted eyes. Wings flapped, and white tail feathers held stiff, as good paper mâché does, nicely finished in an upsweep, a duff so stylish as to make any bird proud.
The afternoon sun beat down. As tourists circulated Santa’s fantasy woodlands, their delights of discovery soared coming into a clearing and unexpectedly finding this amazing bird.
Meanwhile, inside the goose, I was cooking. I crouched to hold the bird’s body over me, so that only my webbed feet and orange legs below the knee were visible to onlookers. To cram myself inside, I’d raised my rear and held my back parallel to the ground – an awkward pose, like assuming an aerial position over a latrine, best maintained by leaning forearms atop knees. Except squatting over a latrine you hold still; here my exertions instead included walking, and supporting the bird’s body, while carrying the huge egg.
This put a steady strain on my thigh muscles, and great pressure on my back, for upon it directly rested the wooden frame and weight of the Goose. An inevitable cramp in my neck grew tighter as I strained to hold my head back at a sharp angle so I could squint through a tiny screen in her breast which allowed me, most of the time, to avoid trees and ditches.
After about three days of goosing around I’d learned to not wear a shirt, even though the apparatus dug into and rubbed against my skin. The awkward physical movements and heavy load made me sweat heavily. Most days the sun beat down, high-summer heat of July and August making the Goose’s interior a sweltering air trap in which I was confined for the better part of an hour, late morning and mid-afternoon.
Unless it had rained, dust would drift upward into this cavity as my webbed-footed flapping stirred the dry powdery ground. It was even worse in the dusty gravel parking lot, which I’d added to the bird’s itinerary to give a welcoming first impression to kids piling out of cars from places like Ohio or Michigan.
This earthy cloud adhered to my perspiring face and chest. Sweat trickled down, rivulets of brown liquid stinging my eyes and salting my mouth. My teeth ground grit. With good aim I had just enough clearance below to spit mud, if children in innocent awe weren’t watching too closely.
I couldn’t wipe away the sweat with my hands because they were in use clutching the celebrated golden egg, double the size of a football, to my chest. Nor could I use the back of my contorted arms, for they were in use activating the wing flaps.
When going down to lay the egg, I had to draw my knees up in a squatting crouch close to the ground, with my buttocks resting on the back of my heels, a killer position in which I was now baking even hotter, because no longer could any air come up from the opening in the bird’s underside, since it rested on the ground.
At a certain point my muscle cramps, overpowering thirst, stinging eyes and faint-headedness from searing heat sent a collective signal to that part of the brain where the survival instinct kicks in. With precious egg retrieved from one final laying on this round of make-believe, I waddled with all the dignity I could muster back to the red door in the administration building and disappeared.
A little while later, Robin Hood, walking stiffly, could be seen hobbling through the woods back to the archery range.
In our fantasies, moving from one role into another can happen swift as a flash. However, in this fantasy garden of childhood delights, home of multi-coloured baby chicks, reindeer, the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, and Santa Claus with a real white beard which proved to tugging children on his knee that this huge man was the real deal – slipping from orange to green leotards took just a bit longer.
Yet it showed that history’s universe of legends and fantasies can materialize, if only you have some props and a little imagination. It showed, too, that a kid would happily do anything in his first summer job, even at $3 a day, for 1960 was a golden hazy summer in which to discover life emerging as an adventure in the reality of make-believe.
-Patrick Boyer (Boyer's Modern History of Muskoka)
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