The day Santa and his reindeer visited Smithfield

Published 3:34 pm Tuesday, December 14, 2021

About a decade ago, I wrote — with some exuberance, I must confess — about a very special visit in Smithfield by Santa Claus in the 1950s. The thing that made that visit special was that Santa brought along his reindeer and sleigh.

That Short Rows drew some interest among an aging set of readers, but also some skepticism. Several people in my general age bracket told me they just couldn’t remember the event and, though they never accused me of making up the whole thing, there were some raised eyebrows. Reindeer on Main Street? Really?

I view writing for a local newspaper to be both an honor and a solemn responsibility. That responsibility includes documenting and redocumenting, if necessary, that which may seem to be unlikely events that it has reported. In our age of disinformation and misinformation, it has become an even weightier charge.

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Hence, today’s column.

When I wrote that first column, the marvelous resource of Virginia Chronicle was not available to back up my memory, and my memory is often flawed. So, this week, I turned to the Chronicle just to make sure the earlier column was accurate, and there at the top of Page 1 of the Nov. 26, 1953, Smithfield Times, was a banner headline proclaiming “See Santa, Live Reindeer & Sleigh In Smithfield Dec. 2.” Actually, the same banner, in then rarely used large 42- or 48-point type, was repeated atop five of the paper’s eight pages.

Today, the shops on Main Street still love to have local folks do business with them, and many do, but the lifeblood of some shops is the burgeoning tourist industry. We’re all tourists at one time or another, and we’re all tempted by gift shop inventories when we travel. Thus, a variety of market extravaganzas are held downtown each year to bring people from throughout Tidewater to browse and buy in our quaint downtown.

In the 1950s, things were quite different. Main Street didn’t look nearly as good, but it was the heartbeat of Smithfield’s business community. Four clothing stores (one of them with a rather substantial toy department), three auto dealerships (four when you count a used car lot), two drugstores, two banks, a Western Auto (need a bicycle for Christmas?), multiple barbershops, two grocery stores, a Five and Dime-type store, and the list goes on. Most of them pitched in back in 1953 to help pay for a visit by Santa Claus, his reindeer and sleigh, all sitting atop a flatbed trailer pulled by a tractor.

In the advance publicity published Nov. 26, the newspaper listed on its front page all 31 of the sponsors and carried an unabashedly personalized invitation to everyone in the community to participate in the free event — and, naturally, visit the Main Street stores, all of which would remain open late that evening to welcome customers. Mayor Howard W. Gwaltney expressed the hope that the town’s popular overhead Christmas lights would be strung by the time Santa arrived. They were.

Nobody did much Christmas shopping back in those days before Thanksgiving. There was no Black Friday, no Small Business Saturday and certainly no Cyber Monday. Still, the week after Thanksgiving was a wakeup call for those who needed to get Santa Claus moving, so the Dec. 2 timing was perfect.

Santa’s 1953 visit was an early — and apparently quite successful — effort by Smithfield businesses to bring Christmas shoppers downtown — not just town residents, but people from all over the county. Peanuts were picked, corn was in the crib and Christmas was approaching. An after-dark trip to town to see Santa Claus was a siren call, especially for young rural couples with children. It was a good time to leave the farm and come to town.

That evening the improbable display was pulled up and then back down Main Street and finally parked in front of Marcus Edwards’ service station (now the Perfectly Natural Soap gift shop). There, according to the newspaper’s later reporting, children lined up to visit Santa Claus, who was sitting in his sleigh with real reindeer reins actually draped over the front. After their brief encounter with the most famous sleigh driver in history, those wide-eyed children exited by walking the full length of the trailer alongside and within touching distance (and I seem to recall that touching was allowed) of the world’s equally famous caribou.

The only thing that could have made the evening more perfect — and exciting — would have been if Santa Claus had cracked a whip and ordered his team to “dash away, dash away, dash away all” through the skies.

Alas, that didn’t happen, probably because — and here’s one of the points at which my memory failed me — there were only four reindeer harnessed to the sleigh in a straight line, rather than eight of them two abreast, as we all know they have to be to fly. And even if they had tried to lift off, it could have been catastrophic, what with the overhead power lines and multicolored Christmas lights strung across Main Street.

And so they remained firmly on the ground, and it was the imagination of young children that soared that evening.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is