For me, the Christmas season doesn't really start until the downtown tree lighting and parade. That signals the start of Holiday Magic, a three-week-long festive program led by the Office of Cultural Affairs (OCA) in association with several city departments.
The action centers on Marion Square, where bows, wreaths, and giant gift boxes glitter in the Carolina sunlight. There's an old fashioned sleigh, cute reindeer made out of logs and branches, and live music. I'm in the thick of it — this will be my seventh Christmas as a Santa on the square, waving to passersby, handing out candy canes and good wishes, and greeting parties of school children as they arrive by the bus load to jaw with Mr. Claus.
Except this year, he won't be as ubiquitous as usual. The school visits will be few and far between. And worst of all, there will be no little helpers. America's money slump has hit the North Pole, too.
Visits with the Big C have been trimmed to the three weekends leading up to Christmas, Fridays through Sundays, starting late and finishing early. This ties in with the Farmer's Market on Saturdays and Sundays, when busy foot traffic guarantees Santa some action. Mr. Claus and an elf handler will be on hand to corral the kiddies.
According to OCA Director Ellen Dressler Moryl, the pared-down schedule is not the brainwave of some municipal Scrooge. "Schools have cut back on their field trips," Moryl says. "We didn't get much response from them." She believes that a lack of money may be to blame.
Charleston Stage's Audience Services Manager Gina Barredo agrees. "There's been a downturn in school groups attending our shows over the past two seasons," she says. "They have to cancel their visits because of budget cuts, the cost of hiring buses, or parents being unable to pay their $10." The downtown theater company still packs out some of its school matinees, but not all of them.
On the square, Santa's presence has dwindled drastically. Up until a few years ago, the Clauses would arrive on the square by 9 a.m. and stay well past dark, becoming bright red targets for passing drunks to dribble on. Photos were $2 each in order to cover the cost of the Polaroid film. Whenever possible, we took time to talk to the children properly rather than moving them past us in assembly line fashion. We couldn't offer animatronic reindeer or pre-wrapped toys, but we tried to offer a more affordable alternative to the mall.
Amazingly, the kids came back year after year. I've seen children grow from kindergarten to middle school age, from believers to know-it-all tweens who remember their school trips to the square. They never thought it was weird to find two people dressed in heavy fur-trimmed suits and wigs, sweating in the crazy, hot Charleston weather. They were just pleased to see us.
The Holiday Magic visits were often combined with other downtown activity, from a simple picnic in the square to live musical performances coordinated by the city or trips to a Charleston Stage show, a big deal for little ones used to doing time in their classrooms for most of the year.
But the program's real job is to encourage people to come downtown and get into the holiday spirit. The core of Holiday Magic remains, and Moryl is determined to make this the best one ever. "We're maximizing our programs, having Mr. and Mrs Claus there on days when most kids go there," says Moryl. "We're spending the dollars we have to spend responsibly."
According to Mayor Joe Riley, the Holiday Magic budget remains the same as last year. "There's not as much activity on weekdays," he says, "so we looked at ways to be more efficient. We're being frugal and thoughtful with circumstances the way they are now."
Frugal and efficient? Santa would surely approve.
But if you pass the square during the week and the grotto is empty, don't blame the big guy. Blame those wonderful wizards of Wall Street who have landed us in reindeer dung.