Santa Claus is finally back in town.
After a two-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Santa’s North Pole Experience has set up shop again in the Cummins-Phipps-Grill House in Eden Prairie.
In Santa’s festively decorated parlor sat Arlyn Grussing in a comfy chair, certainly looking the part of jolly old Saint Nick as he greeted two young children and their families last Saturday.
Grussing has a long white beard, spectacles, a red coat, a black belt and boots, and, maybe most importantly, a jolly disposition.
His Santa bona fides are displayed in a framed certificate over the fireplace mantel. On it, the University of Santa Claus proclaims “Santa Arlyn Grussing, Ph.D,” a doctor of SantaClausology.
Saturday was his first day as Santa for the 2022 holiday season at the historic house across Pioneer Trail from Flying Cloud Airport.
Santa is there through Dec. 23; time slots can be reserved on the website.
“We try to make long lasting memories for families,” he said. “You try to be the best Santa you can be.”
For Grussing, the best part of being Santa is meeting the children who come through the doors with their families to see him. This year, though, he thinks kids might need Santa a little more.
“Without a doubt, it’s just spreading a little joy after COVID,” he said. “These kids really have some issues. And just getting a real hug from Santa makes a big difference.”
After doing Zoom calls as Santa from his home in Bloomington during the pandemic, Grussing said it’s good to be back in person, too.
“I’ve been getting a lot more hugs lately,” he said. “The kids have missed a lot of things that we thought were normal, but are not anymore.”
‘Old-fashioned Christmas’ charm
Grussing, a former city planner who worked in Bloomington and other communities, has been portraying Santa for 16 years.
Five of his first six years as Santa were spent at Eden Prairie Center mall. He’s been bringing Christmas spirit to families at the house since 2013.
“I didn’t like it there at all,” he said of being a mall Santa. “It’s not a Santa experience. It’s just pushing families through and getting them to buy things at the stores.”
Instead, he wanted to offer a more intimate setting for families than a mall. The house, now decorated with figurines, stockings, wreaths, and garland, offers what he described as an “old-fashioned Christmas” charm he coveted.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Cummins-Phipps-Grill House (named after the three families who lived there) is owned by the City of Eden Prairie and leased by the Historical Society. Available for private event rentals (such as Santa Claus), any money made from those rentals goes back into the house.
“One family comes in (to Santa’s parlor) and that’s it,” he said. “Nobody else.”
Besides meeting Santa, people can purchase such items as holiday toys, books and picture frames in the dining room. Kids also can bide their time waiting for Santa by watching a movie or coloring upstairs.
Grussing added that Santa’s North Pole Experience isn’t entirely back to what it offered before the pandemic.
“We used to take the photographs here, and now we’re just letting take them own,” Santa said. “Hopefully, next year we can be back taking pictures again, but we’ll see what happens.”
Unlike in past years, no tent or food truck will be set up outside. The Eden Prairie Optimist Club will continue to sell Christmas trees there this year.
“Maybe next year,” said Bruce Bengry, one of Santa’s helpers, on bringing the tent and food truck back. “We’ll certainly be looking at it, depending on the health of the country.”
Over the years, people of all ages have come to see Grussing in Santa’s parlor.
The youngest was 2 days old. “The family was coming home from the hospital and they said, ‘Let’s get a picture with Santa,'” he said. “That was the youngest. And 94 was the oldest.”
They also come from around the Twin Cities and beyond to see Santa. He’s not doing many Zoom calls this season, but his reach was worldwide last year.
Children ask Grussing for many different gifts for Christmas. Some are a lot easier to grant than others.
One request from a young girl of about 5 or 6 years old sticks with him.
“‘On Christmas Eve, could you stop and put a flower on each of the graves?,'” she said to him. “I didn’t say right away, ‘Oh, we do that on Memorial Day.’ I was smart enough to shut up and then I gave her a great big hug.”
Grussing said children always ask him for electronics like iPads and iPhones. He tells them that his elves don’t make them.
“Elves are good at making toys, so you better come up with some better ideas because if you want an iPhone or an iPad, maybe Mom or Grandpa and Grandpa will buy it for you,” he tells them.
This Santa won’t promise pets, either. He said buying a pet should be a family choice. “If one person in the family doesn’t want it, the dog will suffer and I won’t do that to that dog,” he said.
About an hour into his 2022 holiday season at the house, Grussing asks Gemmaline Schmidt, 4, of Hampton, Iowa, what she wants for Christmas.
Gemmaline takes a moment to answer.
“An air fryer,” she finally says.
“They do good job on fried foods, don’t they?” he said.
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