As a flock of elementary children gathered around, Santa Claus picked up a guitar, an item not commonly associated with the jolly old elf.

He led the kids in a singalong of the first verse of “Jingle Bells,” instructing the children to laugh as he sang “Laughing all the way.” Once the cacophony of “Ha ha has” died down, he explained that once upon a time, he had needed to figure out a way to laugh along with the song that rhymed with “Dashing through the snow.” Could his audience figure out how he did that?

Slowly, but surely, they did, and the next time he sang the verse, the laughter came out as “Ho ho ho.”

“Everybody thinks I laugh that way,” Santa said. But it’s not so. It’s only because he has “Jingle Bells” on his mind so much that he says “Ho ho ho” while he’s humming it.

Santa, of course, is over a thousand years old. However, Tom Williams — who has for a quarter century incarnated Santa as part of the Historical Society of Western Virginia’s Fantasyland holiday display — is 73.

Fantasyland exists at the combined History Museum of Western Virginia and O. Winston Link Museum at Williamson Road and Shenandoah Avenue Northeast. “This is our 25th year,” said museum manager Lynsey Allie.

Santa, in the form of Williams, will make appearances Saturday mornings through Dec. 21. He’ll make a special afternoon appearance Dec. 22, accompanied by his Figgy Pudding Band.

A Floyd County resident who plays in the band Bhakti Kulani, Williams took a job as a mall Santa in the mid-1990s and didn’t much enjoy it. When he was first invited to portray Santa for the Fantasyland exhibition at the history museum, he told the director at the time, “If I do it, I really don’t want to be the traditional ‘sit on the lap, what you want for Christmas,’ I want to do something different. I developed the program that we have here through an organization that I call the Santa Cares Project, santacares.org.”

He came up with what he considers a better way to portray St. Nick, singing songs to and with his young audience, telling stories, talking about the history of St. Nicholas and how giving and sharing forms the heart of the Christmas spirit. “What I’m hoping to accomplish is to basically promote the meaning of Christmas in a broad sense, because people have different impressions of what that is for them.” He described that meaning as “an all-inclusive idea of sharing love,” and shook a jar full of colorful spangles so that it jingled. “The magic sparkle dust is a part of that, the idea that love is invisible until you use it.”

Using Santa Claus as his nom de plume, Williams has written and published several picture books for children that espouse this philosophy. The latest is called “Tracks, Trails & Christmas Tales.”

He’s clearly a veteran when it comes to working with youngsters. Whenever it’s time for the latest group of children to smile for the camera, Williams — that is, Santa — says “cookies” instead of “cheese.”

Parents and grandparents who bring kids to meet Santa will get to stroll down memory lane, both because the history museum has organized Fantasyland for so many years, and because before then Fantasyland was a regular feature of the Heironimus department store in downtown Roanoke. “It’s a foundation, a tradition for so many for Christmas,” Allie said. “It’s fun to hear all the stories and associations that people have.”

The displays aren’t precise reproductions from that nostalgic era. “The characters came from a variety of places around Roanoke. The collection that’s here is from Grand Piano, Heironimus, a few other places,” Williams said.

He recalled the Heironimus display from childhood visits to Roanoke. “I went as a kid, never dreaming that I would end up being Santa Claus.”

Ballerina window display

The Little Gallery at 301 Market St. S.E. in Roanoke is holding a reception 6:30 p.m. Friday, coinciding with the Art by Night downtown gallery tour and the Dickens of a Christmas holiday celebration, during which members of the cast of Roanoke Ballet Theatre’s “The Nutcracker” will perform, accompanied by pianist Travis Payne. For more information, call 206-2936 or visit The Little Gallery’s Facebook page.

Mike Allen covers government happenings in Franklin County and Botetourt County for The Roanoke Times and also writes the weekly Arts & Extras column.

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