When I was a lad in post-war South Providence, Santa Claus faced two major hurdles as he contemplated a visit to our tenement.

First off, the structure had no fireplaces, so there was no chimney for him to slide down.

Second, we were Jewish.

My parents, observant in more than just a religious sense, had decided that depriving me of visits from the old elf – who made many nearby stops in our Jewish-Irish neighborhood – would have no deleterious effect on my commitment to Judaism.

On this they were correct, but I fretted. How would Santa find his way into our house?

They suggested that with his magic powers, he could slip in in through the old-fashioned Vulcan water heater in the kitchen. I bought it, unmindful of Santa’s getting boiled like a lobster.

This was many decades ago, but the memory lingers vividly today and helps explain a Christmas anomaly in our little village of Greenville.

Many were disappointed recently when bad weather forced cancellation of our town’s annual “All Lit-Up” Christmas Parade, which to many embodies the spirit of the season.

This is a homespun observance, with floats, caroling, marching bands, and hot chocolate at the lighting of a towering live fir. Several thousand townsfolk watch as the marchers wind from Smithfield High School to ceremonies on bustling Putnam Pike, our version of Main Street.

A curiosity, though, marks the application for taking part in the march, which bears this unlikely Santa clause:  “No Santa Claus allowed in parade. No exceptions, so don’t ask. You WILL be removed.”

This pronouncement, purposely stern to let folks know it means business, is not as grinch-like as it appears, according to former State Rep. Tom Winfield, parade coordinator.

On the contrary, he explains, Santa is indeed welcome in town – but so is keeping his legend credible for kids.

He recalls that in the parade’s first year, 2016, many floats carried their own versions of St. Nick – so what was a kid to make of that?

“Let’s look at it from the child’s point of view,” he says. “Having twenty Santas was confusing the little kids – it was Santa overload.”

Winfield and his planning committee decided there was value in safeguarding precious memories, to be unwrapped and enjoyed later in life. 

He said Fire Chief Robert W. Seltzer,  a committee member, put it this way: “We’re making lifelong memories. We want them to remember believing there was only one Santa.” 

And that’s why the rules ever since allow just a single authorized Kris Kringle (after all, there IS just one). He’ll be there for ceremonies starting at 4 p.m. Dec. 10, where despite the parade’s cancellation the tree will be lit as usual in the village center. 

The lighting ceremony dates back to before the 59-year-old Winfield – a town native  – was born, and enhances his own childhood recollections. But in those days travel was required to spot Santa: “We had to go downtown to the Outlet Company.” 

While some might consider the Santa quota a bit restrictive, Winfield strongly disagrees, noting that if there’s a world where Santa’s story is not important, “I don’t want to live in it.”

“It’s hard to understand until you watch the kids,” he says. “For a very short time in Smithfield we have this Hallmark Moment that makes Santa real. It’s a small-town thing – it’s magical.”

Gerry Goldstein (gerryg76@verizon.net), a frequent contributor, is a retired Providence Journal editor and columnist.


Gerry Goldstein

Gerry Goldstein, an occasional contributor to What's Up, is a retired Providence Journal editor and columnist who has been writing for Rhode Island newspapers and magazines for 60 years