’Twas the night before Christmas and all through Oxnard, not a creature was stirring, not even a drunkard. The tamales were rolled in the kitchen with care in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there. But on the 101, there arose such a clatter — another car wrecked, a windshield shattered. The policemen were called but no one was hurt. It seemed that the driver just spun out in the dirt. The cops called him lucky, but the driver knew better. His luck was all thanks to the dry, balmy weather. So, homeward he drove when he saw such a sight! There stood a Santa watching over the night.
Ahh, another typical Christmas Eve in Oxnard. There sits the freeway and there sits the 22-foot-tall sculpture of Santa Claus, his face permanently frozen mid-smile and his hand caught in an eternally cheery wave. The whole scene now seems a cliché. The novelty of the King of Christmas’ immense presence by the side of the road has worn off and his arrival in town no longer seems an amazing moment in local lore. However, the story behind the giant Santa Claus sculpture and how he arrived in Garden Acres is a story worth retelling, especially on the eve of his fourth Christmas in Ventura County.
Santa Claus meets Santa Claus Lane
The birth of the giant Santa began as a tiny seed in the enterprising brain of Patrick McKeon in 1948, according to Charles Phoenix, author of Southern California in the ’50s. Phoenix writes that McKeon opened a juice stand along the side of the road in 1948 and renamed the area Santa Claus, Calif., in an effort to attract tourists. While McKeon envisioned the name and theme for his little slice of heaven, the area may never have transformed into the iconic Santa Claus Lane that it became if not for one chance encounter. As Phoenix writes, “During the 1950 Christmas season, while McKeon was dressed as Santa, waving cars in from off the highway, a man stopped and offered to build a Santa Claus on top of the juice stand for five hundred dollars.”
That random man was Kenneth Vaughn, and his offer led to a Santa sculpted out of a simple wooden frame. Vaughn then covered the frame with a type of chicken wire and cement. Complete with a coat of paint and a pair of spectacles, that representation of the jolly spirit of Christmas survived for 53 years atop the building, weathering countless storms, over half a decade of Christmas festivities and numerous U.S. presidents. At the peak of McKeon’s North Pole-themed madness, Santa Claus Lane included rooftop reindeer, a miniature train, Santa’s Toyland, Santa’s Date and Olive Shop and Santa’s Kitchen (a restaurant with a giant snowman on top), according to Phoenix.
By 2003, however, Santa Claus Lane was beginning to look like Christmas decorations in July: tacky and out of date. Although the beloved Santa statue never lost its allure, the vision of Santa Claus Lane as a tourist magnet began to dissolve. Bits and pieces of McKeon’s Christmas-frenzied vision remained, but without the rosy 1950s enthusiasm of its earlier incarnations.
According to an article by T.J. Sullivan in the November 24, 2000, issue of the Ventura County Star, some Santa Claus lane business and property owners, anxious to improve business and move away from the Christmas-oriented theme, decided that it was time for Santa to go. Besides that, Santa’s body was becoming dangerously unsound and was causing damage to the building below his cheery visage. Steve Kent, who owned the building that supported Santa, summed it up by saying, “It’s just time to let Santa retire and time to move on … time to relocate.”
By 2003, the die was cast for Santa to leave Santa Claus Lane. After that, Santa was in jeopardy of being destroyed, and the Pearl Chase Society got involved to help relocate the jolly icon of all things Christmas. According to the group’s secretary, Bob Baum, “The owner wanted to tear it down to make [the building] more contemporary.” The Pearl Chase Society helped find a new location for Santa by the 101 freeway. Then, “We raised some funds to get it down there,” said Baum.
Garden Acres Water Company, located near Oxnard on Ventura County land, came to Santa’s rescue and offered to house Santa on a small piece of vacant, company-owned property. So in January 2003, Santa Claus came to town. To be more specific, Santa traveled from Carpinteria on the back of a flatbed truck by way of the 101 freeway and arrived on an empty lot surrounded by a used-car dealership, a mobile home park and a strip club. At that point, Santa could simply have become a dirt-covered relic of 101 freeway kitsch. But what happened next is enough to re-ignite even the staunchest Grinch’s spirit of Christmas.
Mike Barber never thought that he’d work for Santa in his retirement. But life can be strange. After rescuing Santa from his uncertain fate, Barber, a retired iron worker and president of the Garden Acres Water Company, found himself faced with the problem of how to restore the giant man to his former glory. Soon, however, people just started showing up to work. “At first I thought, ‘I’m retired. I’ll do it all myself.’ Then people kept showing up, offering to help.”
To say that Santa (and the land where he stands) has undergone a dramatic face-lift is an understatement. The site is now a cheery, holiday park with little resemblance to the empty, dirt-filled mound of its past. In 2003, pre-Santa, the land was empty because the well that Garden Acres had drilled there in 1929 had dried up. “We moved to the other end of Nyeland Acres. The property [where Santa now stands] was full of trash,” said Barber.
In less than a year, however, Santa was restored and his little park was built. Browsing through the scrapbook that his daughter made for him, Barber explains the renovation process. Barber tells how Santa was stripped of paint, covered with new stucco and repainted. (Dunn Edwards donated the paint and artist Penny Sebastian painted in Santa’s new rosy cheeks and twinkly blue eyes.) He shows pictures of the new brick foundation upon which Santa rests and the photo of the local branch of an electrician’s union that donated their electrical expertise to create floodlights for Santa’s nighttime smile. As well, Barber points to the donated concrete patio and the pine trees, holly bushes and other landscaping (given by Home Depot) that were planted by local boy scouts.
The frosting on Santa’s new cake is Barber’s own custom iron work, found on the festive gate that encompasses the small park. An “S” and “C” curved out of black wrought iron customize Santa’s front gate and the silhouettes of cheery reindeer, all along the front fence, give hints of Prancer and Blitzen to the whole scene. Barber then points to Santa’s shiny, oversized spectacles and describes Santa’s final touch. With a smile, Barber explains how he switches Santa’s clear lenses with dark lenses at Daylight Saving time, so that he sports shades in the summer months. “Its been a fun project,” says Barber, “but the greatest part was all the people that came out of the woodwork to help.”
Looking through the photos and describing the renovation process, Barber seems somewhat baffled about how and why he became Santa’s chief protector. It’s hard to understand why anyone would take on the monumental task of giving the 53 year-old Santa a face-lift and then become his chief maintenance elf and site supervisor (all for free). Barber himself is not sure how it all happened. “I don’t know what came over me,” says Barber, about his decision to invite Santa into his life and onto his company’s land. Since then, he has spent hours helping to bring Santa back from the brink of extinction.
Now, Barber says the site is open by appointment only and for special occasions. He says that Santa also gets the occasional visitor pursuing his obscure GPS coordinates (which are hidden in a box at a site) as part of a virtual treasure hunt game called Geo Cash. Once a year, Barber says, a toy giveaway is held at that site. But other than that, the lot is generally peopled only by the oversized St. Nick (and his super-sized shadow).
With the crowds gone and the work finished, Santa sits lonely most of the year, with Barber and a gardener visiting only occasionally to clean up trash and prune hedges. Looking up at Santa from a nearby bench, Barber only has one unfulfilled Christmas dream for his holiday fun land. “I wish more people would make use of this as a Christmas charity.”
Santa the myth
According to Catholic myth and popular legend, St. Nicholas was born in Turkey in 270 A.D. His biography is a patchwork quilt of intrigue, involving the resurrection of dead people, shipwreck survival and the end of famine. According to some stories, St. Nick even freed three young, impoverished sisters who were forced into prostitution due to financial woes. He released each one from sexual slavery by throwing bags of gold into their father’s window each night for three nights. Apparently, the gold-bag-through-the window story explains St. Nick’s ubiquitous red sack. Patron saint of children and sailors, St. Nick is the primitive archetype for the modern day Santa Claus.
Without delving too deeply into St. Nick’s mythological evolution, it is obvious that the reknowned Catholic saint has undergone serious revision to become the Santa Claus that the American public knows and loves now. Sugar-coated and sanitized, modern Santa is simply a jolly, bearded man with a soft spot for kids (without any pesky child-molester tendencies or bothersome religious connotations.)
Ventura County’s own Santa has gone through a similarly dramatic transformation. From unwanted and derelict roadside kitsch, Santa has emerged as a massive, year-round reminder of good cheer. From his roots as a savior to prostitutes to a beacon of cheeriness, Santa has never been far from the modern imagination. And there’s something about his scale. As Santa looms above the 101 freeway, his arm raised in a friendly wave to the traffic as it floods past, it’s hard not to smile and repeat his refrain, “Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.”