Bad weather is no deterrent to seeing the magic of Santa brought to life. Winter coats, gloves, hats and boots get pulled out of closets early if necessary so people can witness the event, and raincoats and umbrellas have also protected the throngs on wet evenings before Thanksgiving. As always, there will be carolers and free hot cocoa to ward off the chill. And everyone expects the line will still snake from Coney Island Weiner Stand down Main and around the corner onto Harrison Street, filled with families waiting for their hot dogs. As the crowds grow, chants of “Santa, Santa!” are heard. One lucky family is chosen to switch the light and is hoisted up the side of the building to be on the same level as Jolly Old Saint Nick.
The sign used to be part of the iconic Fort Wayne department store Wolf & Dessauer’s holiday festivities, as was the giant Christmas wreath that now hangs on One Summit Square and whose lighting follows Santa’s. When first displayed, the Santa was lit with 24,717 bulbs. Those bulbs have been replaced with LED lights, and the original bulbs have been sold by Easter Seals Arc and other groups to raise funds for charity.
The lighting ceremony begins with thanks and official comments, but the real fun is when that switch is thrown and the giant sign bursts forth with brilliant red, gold, blue, green and white lights, Santa’s whip flicking on and off over the backs of his eight reindeer (sorry, Rudolph didn’t make the cut).
At 155 feet long and five and a half tons, the display was first lit on Nov. 21, 1940. It was designed by Wolf & Dessauer artist Isabel Wilkinson Parker, who dashed off a quick sketch based on the suggestion from W&D executive G. Irving Latz. The display was misplaced during a renovation of the store in 1958 and was rediscovered by electrical workers in 1979. It was renovated and put back on display for the 1980 Christmas season.
The Santa lighting is the unofficial kickoff of the holiday season in Fort Wayne and has become a tradition for local families.
As for us, we know where we’ll be the night before Thanksgiving: warming our hands on a Styrofoam cup of cocoa, waiting for Santa to dazzle our eyes and our hearts.