For more than five decades, a major event on Devonshire Mall’s calendar is the arrival of Santa Claus.
On Sunday, November 12, Santa made his fifty-third arrival.
As everyone’s favourite holiday approaches, it is the perfect time to reflect on how Santa’s Village at the mall has evolved over the past half century:
“In the early 1970s, Santa’s Village consisted of Santa’s chair with a little awning over it,” says Devonshire Mall Marketing Manager, Tina Asprakis. “By the early 1990s, the mall brought in a completely new set— a castle with the turrets, lots of red and gold, giant nutcrackers and cherub bears—designed by the Becker Group out of Chicago.”
That set was modified over the next twenty years and periodically refurbished.
Tina adds: “In 2018, Devonshire Mall went through a full mall redevelopment, and it was then that we purchased and installed Santa’s new set/décor.”
Generations of Windsor residents have fond memories of sitting on Santa’s lap at Devonshire Mall. The experience was so magical: meeting a mythical figure and asking for something we really wanted with the genuine sense we might receive it.
No visit to Santa was complete without photographs marking the occasion. Editions of The Windsor Star, going back to the early 1970s, are filled with images of kids smiling in that magical moment upon Santa’s knee. The older each of us gets, the more we realize how fleeting those moments are, and how grateful we are that they were captured in a photo. But it was not always that easy. Invariably, photos of crying kids sitting on Santa’s knee made it into the newspaper, which no doubt elicited a momentary guilty chuckle from many readers.
No one tried harder to capture the happy moment than photographer Morley Silver. Making use of Tigger and Eeyore stuffed toys, the gregarious photographer was captured in a December 16, 1972, edition of The Star, doing what he did best: getting kids to smile.
“The smiling face of a satisfied mother is my reward and I’ll stand on my head if I have to do it,” Morley was quoted as saying.
The highlight of this window of time while Santa is at Devonshire Mall happens right at the beginning, with Santa’s arrival.
For the first sixteen years, Santa just appeared at the mall. In 1986, however, a person in Devonshire Mall offices had an idea:
“Someone among the staff thought that Santa should arrive at the mall by helicopter,” Tina says.
After numerous telephone inquiries, delving into the logistics, someone contacted Zimmer Air, based out of Guelph, which came to supply Devonshire Mall with a red helicopter.
The arrival of such an important world figure has numerous moving parts.
“Planning for Santa’s arrival starts in June,” Tina explains. “In order to use the helicopter, and have it land in Devonshire Mall parking lot, we require authorization from Transport Canada.”
To comply with Transport Canada regulations, Windsor Police Service shuts down Howard Avenue just before Santa’s arrival, until the helicopter is safely on the ground.
“We prep the parking lot where Santa lands,” Tina continues. “We clear a space, set up barricades, and clear the area with blowers to remove any debris that could be stirred up by the helicopters rotors. We have many volunteers from St. Clair College’s police programs who help with traffic control within the shopping center, as well as our own security working.”
Santa arrived at approximately 11 a.m. with approximately one thousand people on hand to witness the event.
“We handed out Santa hats, beforehand, to as many people as we could,” Tina says. “Windsor Fire was on hand promoting their toy drive, doing giveaways, offering tours on the fire truck. Police were here, too. If ever Santa cannot arrive by helicopter, he is brought in by firetruck.”
The one and only time this occurred was in 2018, when, due to safety concerns with high winds and snowy conditions hampering visibility. It’s always good to have a Plan B.
As per tradition, the Windsor Optimist Youth Band does a big show beginning at 10:30 in the morning, marching and playing Christmas carols.
When Santa arrives and his helicopter touches down, he often takes time to greet merrymakers who came out to see him. He is then brought over to the mall’s food court entrance in the Windsor fire chief’s vehicle. There, Santa enters the mall on foot and is escorted to his village by the Windsor Optimist Youth Band.
Asked if any visiting celebrities have been photographed with Santa in the mall, Tina says no, but does offer one story: “In 2018, The Drive Magazine’s own Dave Hunter organized with us to propose to his fiancée, Shawna Pelletier at Santa’s Village.”
Shawna remembers the day well: “Our son Sam was just a year old, and Dave was on the phone the whole time we were going to the mall, making it seem like he was arranging a private moment between Sam and Santa. ‘Sam’s going to love it!’ he was saying. Meanwhile, he was giving our friends the signal to begin hiding because we were nearly there.”
And when the moment came: “I was so surprised,” Shawna recalls. “I couldn’t believe how many of our friends were there. Dave put a lot of planning into that!”
The tradition of Santa’s visit, and the way his presence at the mall has evolved each Christmas, are among the reasons why Devonshire Mall remains such an important part of Windsor residents’ lives.
“I believe we are the only mall in the province that flies Santa in by helicopter,” Tina says. “It’s pretty special and not many people get to see this kind of arrival. It’s a Devonshire Mall tradition.”
There is still time to visit! Santa can be found at his Village in the mall until December 24. Learn what Santa does after Christmas by reading The Drive Magazine’s interview with the man himself.