I collect Santas. Lots of them. In fact, I have so many Santas, I have run out of space in my home for them. Santa, more than any other symbol for me, ignites feelings of magic or whimsy. I grew up in Great Falls. I remember as a very young child seeing the lights on the trees east of Black Eagle across the Missouri River. As a child, my worldview was highly limited, and because I couldn’t figure out how to get up close to the lights, I assumed that was where Santa lived. I know now that, in fact, is where the Anaconda Company management lived (“the rich folks”), and since my family didn’t drive on that side of the river, I never did get up close to those lights. I suppose my parents and I were simply happy to go on under the belief that I could see the “North Pole” from our car. Sadly, when I was about 7 years old, the lights stopped because all of the Anaconda Company management houses were literally moved to the town of Anaconda when the Great Falls plant closed. And with that business decision, I’d guess no one in the company knew that included with the economic devastation to Great Falls, was my devastation that their business decision resulted in Santa “moving away.”
That may have been the first time that I felt the same sense of loss my community was feeling from a business decision made by a large company and employer. At the same time I was questioning why Santa made the choice to move away, most of the adults were wondering the same about the company. And while I was afraid and distinctly remember feeling panic at the notion that the magic of Christmas wouldn’t return without the “lights at Santa’s house” across the river, no doubt most of the adults in Great Falls harbored the same feelings with respect to job insecurity.
Needless to say, Christmas came around the next year, even without the lights from Santa’s house. I don’t recall, even though Great Falls was in an economic rut, any limits to the presents I found under the tree. Great Falls took much longer to recover economically, but the community, much like Butte, seemed to draw together and support those who the company left behind.
I used to wonder why I chose Santas to collect; reflecting on this this story I think the answer is clear: for me, Santas represent more than Christmas, Santas represent loss and recovery, community and strength. Santas also remind me to “not put all my eggs in one basket,” and to recognize the magic in Christmas is displayed when our community rallies behind those most in need.