For more than 30 years, Plymouth Historical Society’s Old-fashioned Christmas event has brought holiday cheer to the present by revisiting the past. Each December, community members gather for s’mores, storytelling, live reindeer, Christmas carols and, of course, Santa and Mrs. Claus, reliving traditions of years past and embracing the beloved characters that tell each story.
This year, well before the tinsel trimming and sleigh riding commence, we went behind the scenes with three of Old-fashioned Christmas’s longtime volunteers—and beloved characters—to highlight some of their favorite Christmas experiences, past and present.
Dennis Jacobson and his wife, Betty, have roots in the Plymouth area dating back centuries. Both of the Jacobsons’ families were early settlers in the 1850s, sparking an interest in history and leading them to get involved with the historical society. For the past 10 years, the Jacobsons have dressed up in Victorian-era clothing and made themselves an important fixture in the Old-fashioned Christmas event.
Dennis wears black pants and a black vest with a white shirt, bowtie and cummerbund. (“A Victorian hat has been hard to find,” he says.) For her part, Betty wears a floor-length dress, a blouse and an apron, tending to cookies “baking” in the old-fashioned, wood-fired kitchen stove. “I sit next to my wife and string popcorn. That’s what they used years ago to decorate the tree, they strung 10 feet of popcorn on a string and hung it, so I show kids that it’s what they did years ago,” Dennis says. “We want to show the history of Plymouth to future generations, and we try to show what they did years ago, compared to today.”
The children attending the event are the Jacobsons’ favorite part, as they watch the crowds moving through and observing the traditions of Christmas past.
As for Dennis, his own favorite holiday memories revolve around family. “We used to celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve. My father was a railroad man, and he sometimes had to work on Christmas, so we moved it around a lot,” he says. “As a kid opening presents, that’s pretty exciting, and I’ve always enjoyed putting up the decorations.”
Kay Bertrand, better known as Mrs. Claus around here, has been at Santa’s side for the past 12 years, wrangling the 200-plus kids who come through Old-fashioned Christmas. Wearing her red-and-green-printed skirt with a large petticoat underneath, a white blouse and red vest, white gloves, and her white hair tucked into a cap, she is the quintessential Mrs. Claus.
Though she accessorizes with a Christmas pin, a bell and festive earrings, her most important accessory, candy canes, stay tucked in the front pocket of her apron, as the minty treat coaxes even the most hesitant of children into Santa’s arms.
Bertrand often finds herself helping Santa interpret what the children are saying or making them feel comfortable the instant they leave their parents by initiating a conversation. “I welcome them and ask their name, or where they go to school, how old they are, or what they would like to tell Santa. I’m just an old lady, and I’ve been around little kids for so long, I don’t even stop to think [about what to say] anymore,” she says.
One of Bertrand’s favorite Mrs. Claus memories was when a child asked Santa if for Christmas he could learn how to read. “One of the little boys came up and sat on Santa’s lap, and he told him that he hadn’t shared it with many people, but he wanted to learn how to read. Afterwards, Santa told me to get the child’s name, and he got him reading help. I just thought that was so special,” Bertrand says.
While Santa and the elves prepare for the holidays, Mrs. Claus enjoys gardening, reading, cooking and spending time with her three children and six grandchildren, all of whom come to Minnesota each summer to participate in their annual family Olympics.
The only thing that Mrs. Claus can’t do? Make promises she and Santa can’t keep, much to the relief of parents. “We don’t say, ‘Okay, we’ll make sure you get that.’ Santa will say, ‘We’ll see what I can do,’ or I’ll say, ‘I’ll put it on the list,’” she says.
Santa (who south of the North Pole prefers the name Floyd Wilvers) has been fielding gift requests and posing for Christmas cards for the past five years.
“The [historical] society knew me through doing other things, and they thought of who was crazy enough to do this, and they thought I would do it. I was thrilled,” Wilvers says.
His favorite part of playing Santa at the event? The kids, of course. “It’s pretty simple: The kids are standing in line waiting their turn, just bouncing off of the walls, and they charge up and you just melt,” he says.
The kids have been known to ask for just about everything, whether it’s ponies or action figures, and all the while Santa remains patient, hanging on every word. Though Santa’s favorite part might be meeting with the young visitors, a lot of preparation happens before show time.
Wilvers reads through the latest toy catalogs so he’s prepared when a child asks if his elves have helped make something for them, always staying on top of the latest and greatest in the present industry. He often practices his “Ho! Ho! Ho!” in the mirror for a few days, goes to a local shopping center to see a prestigious “mall Santa” and take notes, and makes sure his plush red suit and fluffy white facial hair are kid-ready.
Of course, he can’t stop each tiny finger from grabbing at his beard (one of Wilvers’s ultimate anxieties), which is where Mrs. Claus steps in. “Year after year, she’s a lifesaver,” Wilvers admits.
During Santa’s offseason, Wilvers does double-duty as Smokey Bear during parades, the State Fair and for the DNR, a pastime that keeps him connected with kids all year long, making his “Naughty or Nice?” list extremely accurate.
Free. 2–5 p.m. December 5
Plymouth Creek Center