As a child, I wholeheartedly accepted that Santa Claus was a real person and that he made his home at the North Pole. The fact of his existence was confirmed with a visit to the downtown Eaton’s Store (now the MTS Centre) during the winter of 1958.
One day, when living for a brief period of time in an apartment above my grandparents’ grocery store, my mother decided that it was as good a time as any to visit Eaton’s and view the Christmas display in the storefront windows as well as the other festive spectacles being offered. What really got my sister and I brimming with excitement was the announcement that we could also get our picture taken with Santa.
She bundled our four- and five-year-old bodies in sweaters, heavy pants, parkas, toques, scarves, mitts and winter socks and boots. With so many layers of clothing, it was a wonder that we were able to take a single step, never mind walk the few blocks to Eaton’s. But our mother announced she was not about to abandon the “great adventure” and we cheered.
What greeted us as we went out the door and down the front steps wasn’t exactly a winter wonderland, but the winding down of one of the biggest blizzards in the city’s history. We were reassured by my mother that it was a great time to go downtown — the traffic would be at a bare minimum and there wouldn’t be throngs of people jostling about in the store’s aisles. Actually, it didn’t take much to convince us. Swirling snow and massive snowdrifts were not going to deter us from visiting Santa.
With my sister taking one hand and myself the other, our dear mother led us down the middle of Portage Avenue toward the bright beckoning lights of Eaton’s and, as the advertisements proclaimed, its “Christmas Fairyland.”
Until she passed away a couple of years ago, my mother, Thorey, never tired of telling me about the time when we braved a blizzard to go to Eaton’s. It happened to be one of her fondest memories, and there would be a twinkle in her eye accompanied by merry laughter whenever she retold the story.
For my part, I was so young that I only possess sketchy recollections of the adventure. And my younger sister, Rhonda, has told me that she has absolutely no memory of the time we went to see Santa, determinedly waddling through the heavy snow.
One memory I do have is that Portage Avenue was filled with snow, and that my mother, despite our tiny steps, guided us through the middle of the street with what seemed to be relative ease, finding a path between the mounds. I don’t remember ever thinking that it was too difficult a trek — undoubtedly the attraction of Santa quelled any such thoughts.
I also remember seeing buses stranded in the middle of the avenue and other people winding their way around the snowdrifts.
The Winnipeg Free Press reported on November 18, 1958, that the blizzard had resulted in “a city besieged.”
“Streaking across southeastern Manitoba late Monday the blizzard isolated towns, marooned drivers on country roads, cut communications and turned Greater Winnipeg into one big snowdrift.”
The newspaper said the snowfall was the heaviest “for November since the weather office started keeping records in 1874.” Actually, the newspaper was referring not to the whole month, but a three-day period during which some communities received up to 16 inches of snow, while Winnipeg received 11 inches. The still-unbroken record for snowfall in November was in 1955.
What made the 1958 storm a near calamity was the savagely gusting wind, which whipped up the snow into a blinding blizzard. The winds gusting over 70 kilometres an hour so hampered the city’s street clearing efforts that most plowing ceased until the blizzard was over. The only operations undertaken were to create single lanes through the drifts on the main streets for cars to go through.
One front-page Free Press photo, showing people walking with bent bodies into the wind and snow and women and men desperately gripping their hats to keep them from flying off, contained the caption: “Winnipeg Streets looked like the retreat from Moscow Tuesday morning. So said one of the hardy citizens who refused to let 11 inches of snow keep him away from work. Hundreds of people, walking single file, threaded through the deep snow and arrived at work up to two or three hours late — but they got there.”
What I remember is that it was dark when we set out for Eaton’s, so we must have left after my mother got home from work. It was possibly in the evening of the third day when the storm had begun to abate.
A photo shows buses stranded on Portage Avenue, proving that at last some of my memories about that day were based in fact. Another photo shows men and women pushing a stranded bus. An accompanying article tells of one bus skidding to a stop and knocking down a bus stop sign. “We didn’t need it away,” commented the bus driver.
“At one stop a waiting lady asked if the bus was a ‘McGregor bus.’
“‘Never mind what bus it is lady, it’s a bus and it’s moving,’ replied a sweating passenger who had just finished pushing. The lady climbed aboard.”
Transit officials reported seven Corydon and five Grant buses were at one time stuck in snowdrifts. A Portage Avenue bus had its nose stuck deep into a drift at Portage and Colony, with its rear jutting outward into three of Portage’s four westward lanes, which caused a massive bottleneck.
Another photo shows a woman walking down the middle of the avenue, which also confirms I had remembered real events from the November blizzard.
The November 17 blizzard may have shut down most of the city — but not Eaton’s. While I don’t remember much about being in the store, advertisements I later read said the storefront was ablaze with lighted snowflakes “like a thousand dancing stars,” and that the corner window was “a Winter Carnival delight.”
Inside was “Santa’s Ice Palace” where the jolly old gent in the red suit held court. My sister and I did get our picture taken while sitting on Santa’s lap. It’s a photo we still cherish.
In later years, my mother told me I asked Santa for a train set and promised to be good.
Why wouldn’t a child believe in Santa Claus? The evidence of his existence was in the present I opened on Christmas Morning 1958.