by Kym Byrnes
Learn more about Santa’s Cabin: www.hanoverpasantacabin.com. Opens Friday, Nov. 27. from 9 a.m. to noon, 1 to 5 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. After that, the Cabin will be open Saturdays 10 a.m. to noon and 1 to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday from 6 to 8 p.m. Closed on Sundays.
For almost 80 years, the magical joy of Christmas time radiates from a little cabin – Santa’s Cabin- that appears in Center Square just after Thanksgiving.
Generations of children have anxiously awaited their turn to share their wish lists. And thanks to several service organizations and a dedicated group of volunteers, the young visitors leave assured.
Yes, Hanover, there is a Santa Claus.
“Santa’s Cabin means an awful lot to our community, it brings in the Christmas spirit,” said Ray Black, a volunteer involved in organizing downtown Hanover Christmas festivities. “So many traditions today are getting washed down the drain, we want to keep the tradition of Christmas here in Hanover.”
Documented history suggests that sometime around 1929 the Chamber of Commerce and the Associated Gas & Electric System, known as Met Ed, teamed up with the goal that “Hanover might present a more attractive Christmas appearance than in previous years.” A contest was created with a prize going to the most originality in lighting the exterior of a home. Several years later, downtown merchants teamed up with the borough to decorate Center Square, with hopes of bringing customers downtown to shop.
In 1936, Borough Manager Chester A. Eckbert came up with the idea of placing a “non-denominational” Santa’s Cabin in Center Square, according to a history of the cabin written by Dr. John McGrew and available at http://hanoverpasantacabin.com.
Eckbert and his employees cut and fitted by hand some of the standing blight-killed chestnut trees from the borough-owned watershed in Pigeon Hills. The cabin was set up on the oval in Center Square facing Frederick Street, just in front of the Picket Statue. The project included what would become an important part of the tradition for children all over the area and beyond: a mailbox so children could send their letters directly to Santa.
“Shorty” Null was born in Midway and moved to Linden Avenue in Hanover when he was 6 years old. Now 80, the SpiriTrust Lutheran resident said he fondly remembers visiting the cabin, and especially mailing letters to Santa.
“For a long time they had the letters to Santa being answered right here in Hanover,” Null said. “That was a real tradition when I was a kid.”
The cabin’s written history reports that Mr. and Mrs. Grover C. Gouker, Jr., were in fact, Santa’s correspondence secretaries from 1949 to 1951. Remarkably, the couple read and answered an average of more than 900 letters each of those years.
Based on the popularity of the first cabin, the borough decided to build a new, larger cabin in 1937 that would be used for years to come. It is the same cabin that is used today. In 1938 the cabin was painted green with white trim. A tradition in the making, the cabin continued to grow in popularity. A crowd of close to 1,000 people welcomed Santa as he arrived at the cabin in 1939.
Harold Raubenstine, 87, remembers taking his children to see Santa in downtown Hanover. Now a resident of SpiriTrust Lutheran, Raubenstine said generations of kids have been touched by the cabin.
“We always had to stand in line, and it was cold,” Raubenstine remembered. “People enjoyed it, especially the kids. We took our kids every year they wanted to see Santa. They couldn’t wait. It’s important for the small children, even today, they appreciate it at that age.”
Now a great-grandfather, Raubenstine said he took his children to Santa’s Cabin and, in keeping with the tradition, his children took their children to the same cabin to see Santa each year.
In the early- and mid-1940s the nation focused on war efforts, which brought blackouts (no Christmas lights) and financial hardship for the borough, local businesses and citizens. Reports suggest the cabin was still placed in the Square each year and Santa visited with children, but that some years there may have been no parade and/or no lighting decorations. During some of these years, the cabin was placed facing out Carlisle Street as the Frederick Street side of the oval was being used for the military Roll of Honor.
In 1952, the cabin was set up in front of the former Peoples Bank in the southwest corner of the square, where it is still placed today.
A borough ordinance stated that foot traffic was no longer permitted in the Oval on Center Square because it impeded traffic flow and was dangerous for pedestrians.
Wrapped up in the joy of seeing Santa and thinking about that long list of gifts he might bring were sweet treats. Part of the Santa’s Cabin tradition in Hanover was that each child who visited the cabin would be given candy and citrus, often an orange.
Null said his family never had a car growing up. If he couldn’t get a ride into town, he said he would walk to the Square “if the weather was fit.” He fondly remembers the warmth of the cabin, and the treats that came with it.
“There was always a line there and when we got in, the cabin was warm and we got oranges and candy canes,” Null said. “When I had children of my own, we took them in and [the cabin] didn’t seem to change much – there was still that line and that nice warm feeling inside.”
It wasn’t until 1974 that the tradition was tweaked. “In a display of local pride” according to the written history, Santa’s gift of oranges and candy was replaced with potato chips and candy for the children.
In 1988, the Hanover Merchants Association had the cabin spruced up with new doors and windows, a new paint job, new wiring and new carpet. In 2002 the Exchange Club and volunteers again put work into upgrading the aging cabin, including adding a steel framework and a trailer to move it from storage to the Square.
As with any tradition there are some constants. The recurring themes for Santa’s Cabin in Hanover include the feeling of warmth, the magic and bigger-than-life feeling of Santa Claus, the fanfare of a parade and decorations and, not to be overlooked, the volunteers who make it all possible each year.
According to downtown holiday event organizer Ray Black, four local service clubs (Lions, Exchange, Kiwanis and Rotary) and a host of volunteers work tirelessly to continue the Christmas traditions in downtown Hanover each year. Black, who used to own a photography store on the Square, said he originally got involved in 1990 when he was asked to take photos at the cabin.
“I just got more involved more each year and it has just become part of my life,” Black said.
A committee of volunteers begins to work organizing the holiday festivities in September, Black said. For the 75th anniversary celebration in 2012, Black said the committee was up to 33 volunteers, each one of them committed to “bringing excitement to the children.”
“We have about 2,000 kids come through in a season,” Black said. “And for the 75th anniversary we had lines a block and a half long waiting to get into the cabin to see Santa Claus.”
Black said that it’s all about the tradition of bringing joy to children and giving them hope.
“If we don’t have tradition and no one to follow through with it, then we’ve lost something,” Black said. “Ask the children sometime how important Santa really is to them, he’s very important.
“We have adults coming in to sit on Santa’s lap just because they’ve done it since childhood. The beautiful part of it is Santa Claus gives children hope, and sometimes hope is lost in the way we operate today.”