The Optimist-In-Chief, and Santa Claus

Alan Holman
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R.T. Holman Ltd., Summerside

Given the season, it seems a bit unseemly to challenge the province’s self designated Optimist-In-Chief on just what exactly constitutes censorship.

Certainly, most would think that any prevention of the dissemination or distribution of opinions, ideals, or comment, that weren’t libellous or slanderous, would amount to censorship. Giving offence is not usually considered to be libellous or slanderous.

When, as president of UPEI, Wade MacLauchlan, swooped up all copies of an issue of The Cadre, the student newspaper, because he found the Danish cartoons it published to be offensive, it is difficult to see his action as anything other than censorship.

But, on the front page of Monday’s Guardian, with his rose-coloured glasses firmly in place, Mr. MacLauchlan denied that preventing the distribution of The Cadre was censorship. The Guardian article didn’t go into what legal niceties or hair-splitting rationale Mr. MacLauchlan used to arrive at this conclusion.

And given that this is the season of Good Cheer and Santa Claus, perhaps it’s a debate best left for another time.

During the last century, between the world wars, two venerable Island institutions were still operating. However, both the P.E.I. Railway and the R. T. Holman department stores are now gone.

At this time of year, it was once a custom of Holman’s to send an employee to Tignish on the Western Express. He would stay overnight and return on the train the next day, outfitted in a Santa Claus suit.

Santa Claus’s journey would be well publicized in advance. Young children and their parents would gather by the tracks and station stops where candies and other small treats were distributed. When the train arrived in Summerside, Santa would be paraded along Water Street to his home at Toyland in the Holman’s store.

Though simple in concept, occasionally the execution sometimes got a bit complicated, human nature being what it is.

One year, with crowd gathered at the railway station in Summerside, the train arrived, but Santa failed to materialize. No problem, come back tomorrow.

Santa will be here tomorrow. Tomorrow came, but Santa Claus didn’t.

However, late in the afternoon a telegram did arrive at Holman’s.

“Please come and get your Santa Claus. He’s been drunk in Richmond for the past two days.”

The railway had been the mainstay of Santa’s transport for decades, but with the establishment of two large air bases in Prince County during the Second World War, people became aware of air travel. So did Santa.

The Holman store in Summerside was a large four storey building. It was a block long and had a flat roof. On this particular Christmas it was advertised that Santa would be arriving by aircraft and he would land on the roof of Holman’s Store. Come one - come all, to witness this momentous event.

J. LeRoy, one of R.T. Holman’s sons, concocted this scheme. He had a full size silhouette of a small aeroplane, with an open cockpit, built out of plywood with a single wing affixed to it. A rail was laid along the length of the roof near the street side edge, and a noisy gas washing-machine motor was placed near by.

The aircraft silhouette lay flat on the western end of the roof, with its wheels lined up on the rail, in this position the wing was sticking straight up. Santa was already on the roof, but, stood well back from the edge, out of sight from the large crowd that had gathered below.

At appropriate time, someone in the crowd shouted they could see the plane flying in from the east, all eyes snapped that way to catch sight of the plane. At that moment the silhouette was pushed up right, with its wing protruding out over the street, Santa positioned himself in the cockpit, the washing machine engine was fired up, giving acoustical credence to the fact an aircraft was landing, The whole contraption rolled along the roof with Santa running along side, waving to the crowd and giving the appearance he was aboard. When it stopped, Santa came around the plane to roof’s edge and announced he would be shortly taking the children’s requests in Toyland.

Another year, Santa arrived on the roof of Holman’s in a small, but real helicopter. No artificial silhouettes were involved.

Holman’s began before the railway was built and lasted a few years beyond it’s demise. Now both are long gone. But, the spirit of Christmas and the magic of Santa Claus remain. Happy Holidays.

Alan Holman is a freelance journalist living in Charlottetown. He can be reached at:

Organizations: The Cadre, UPEI, PEI Railway Western Express

Geographic location: Summerside, Iceland, Tignish Water Street Richmond Prince Charlottetown

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