This week’s Flyover People column as seen in The Emporia Gazette:


Tom Flick’s raspy voice erased all uncertainty. “Ho-ho-ho” was a dead giveaway when that man put on the red suit.

But the years that Santa wasn’t played by Tom, my friends and I had a dickens of a time guessing who was behind the white beard.

Every year on a Saturday in mid-December, Santa Claus (a Lions Club member) arrived in Pawnee Rock to deliver sacks of candy to kids who gathered around the fire truck.

Yeah, a fire truck. This was small-town Kansas in the ‘60s and it was one of those use-what-you-have situations; the town had no sleigh and the real Santa Claus was apparently otherwise occupied.

But the pseudo Santa was always punctual. At 10 a.m., he rode the fire truck down the hill from The Rock (i.e., the North Pole) with the wind-up siren blaring. The fire truck turned off Main, stopping on the side street between the grocery store and the post office.

Dozens of kids swarmed. We’d squeeze against each other, happy for the warm herd of bodies around us. With arms extended up, we’d wait for the offering, delivered one at a time.

After I grabbed my small brown paper bag, I went to the low concrete bench at the side of the grocery store to sit with friends where we’d trade and eat candy.

A good deal of the bag was filled with peanuts-in-the-shell and there was an apple. We might find Brach’s candy – Neapolitan pieces, candy orange slices and chocolate peanut clusters. And there was always a Snickers or a Hershey’s bar in our sack.

After the bags were handed out, Santa drew names for the turkeys. Before the event, residents could purchase tickets from the Lions Club for a chance to win. My dad always entered our names in the drawing, and one year I became the proud owner of a frozen turkey.

Santa’s visit to town was the event of the year for downtown Pawnee Rock. We didn’t have anything else. During the 18 years I lived there, I think there was only one parade. Our town had no festivals, no street dances. Santa Claus was it.

And it wouldn’t have seemed like Christmas to any of us without Santa’s arrival. It gave us a moment when we could all stand around together, as a community, on a Saturday morning.

The cold that rimmed the top of our ears and burned our cheeks helped make it feel like Christmas. And there was joy and excitement in that downtown intersection, an uplifting spirit in the air. Greetings among the adults were cheerful; partings were signaled by a bright “Merry Christmas.”

In my little hometown, Santa Claus riding into town on the fire truck was a prerequisite for the holiday. Once he showed up, Christmas seemed certain; at that point it was less than two weeks away.

The Christmas season has more traditions than a Douglas fir has needles – and those rituals vary from family to family, from church to church, from town to town. Whatever the traditions are, there’s a comfort in those familiar moments that we count on every year.

Not everyone participates in the holiday. There are those of different faiths, as well as those who put their faith in other things. But whether or not one celebrates Christmas, it is all around us: the music, the candy, the decorations.

Each December, we’ve come to expect certain things: holiday parades and programs, carols in the air, the ringing of the Salvation Army bell.

For some folks, it’s not Christmas until they put up the tree with the kids or until they hang their own childhood ornaments. Maybe Christmas doesn’t seem like it’s real until you watch “It’s a Wonderful Life.” For others, they know that it’s Christmas when they sit in a pew on a frosty evening and hear a lone voice read Luke 2:1-20.

The feeling of Christmas hits different people at different times.

I don’t know if Santa Claus still shows up in Pawnee Rock, but every December that hometown scene replays in my mind. When I recall the images of Santa riding in on the fire truck, well, that’s when I know that Christmas is here.

Copyright 2013 ~ Cheryl Unruh

(A similar version of this column ran in The Emporia Gazette in Dec. 2009.)



  1. We only do the religious part of Christmas, we do have Sinterklaas at 5 december.
    What wonders me, where comes the “Ho-ho-ho” from, a Scandinavian greeting or something from Iceland?

  2. This parallels my childhood but we had to drive from Effingham to Valley Falls for a grocery store appearance by Santa in a holiday red fire truck. I remember listening to the radio of a Topeka supermarket appearance by Santa arriving in a helicopter. The helicopter was no doubt flown by a veteran of the Korean Conflict.

    Another good one, Cheryl.

  3. I love this! –but then I always love Cheryl’s messages, articles, columns, words! When I was a kid, I don’t think there was a Santa in Woodbine, but my mother did not encourage believing in Santa–although I always hoped there was one–and would look out the windows on Christmas Eve and thought I saw his sleigh flying through the sky one time!

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