By Dawn M Chiossi
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, or it soon will be. Soon everyone will be enveloped in their annual festive traditions such as decorating, shopping, baking, and that important staple: a visit and photo with Santa Claus. For children, he is the magic of the holiday. For parents, capturing the expression of utter wonder and excitement on their children’s faces as they sit with him is pure joy.
Yet while people may feel the season just won’t be the same without this tradition, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and stressed by it. In those instances, it is easy for adults to feel that the magic of the season is just something from childhood, something that may only exist in Hallmark Movies and Norman Rockwell moments.
Santa Land in Denville not only stirs recollections of Christmas magic and possibilities, it captures them. Quaint and charmingly nostalgic, Santa Land is like a trip to Santa’s Village. This annual tradition brings back the anticipation, the joy, and the enchantment of the holiday for people of all ages. A visit to Santa Land is a respite from today’s busy life, something that would surely make Norman Rockwell feel proud.
Located at Clark Street between Church and Orchard Streets right across from the post office, behind the Chase bank, Santa Land is just another one of Denville’s treasures.
Sponsored by the Denville Rotary, Santa Land is not only considered a perfect example of their community-service projects, it is renowned as their signature service project.
In fact, Santa Land receives approximately 300 families each year.
Dedicated to making positive changes in the community and the world, the Denville Rotary does so much. An organization based on community and friendship, these passionate members seek to give back to others. Rotary members seek to impact lives on both local and international levels.
For the whole town, there’s an excitement in the air. Kicking off the season right after Thanksgiving, Santa Land envelops itself in the season with the annual Tree Lighting Ceremony, held this year on Friday, November 30th. Holiday ambiance rang out as the sounds of the Morris Knolls High School Chorale once again sang Christmas Carols. Even the mayor was on hand to say a few words.
“This is the highlight of the holiday season,” exclaims Rotary Secretary, Jen Hillegass. “It is really so beautiful.” Then came Denville’s Annual Holiday Parade the next day, held on December 1st. The parade marks the appearance of Santa himself.
From visitors to Rotarians, to even volunteers from Denville Interact Club (Morris Knolls High School Students), everyone is bubbling.
“Santa Land is one of our most fun campaigns,” Hillegass enthuses.
According to Janet Navarro, Denville Rotary’s President and Chief Elf, Santa Land originally began as just one small house where children could visit with Santa, but has expanded and grown throughout the years to become “a small park.”
With the large Christmas Tree at the center, that small park now holds Santa’s House, Santa’s Workshop, a gingerbread house, a wishing well, a Nativity Scene, and a few other buildings, Navarro relates. “At Christmastime, we decorate the property with figurines of beloved kid’s characters from The Cat in the Hat to Shrek,” she tells. There are lovely scenes at the Christmas stations including Teddy Bears drinking hot chocolate by the fire, elves at Santa’s Workshop, and more. Hillegass even mentions that there are television screens in the Gingerbread House showing the wonderful holiday favorites like Rudolph and Frosty.
In addition to exploring all of the delights of this little gem, there are old-fashioned light posts to illuminate the property, benches outside and a kids-sized train for children to climb and play on. Children can run, play, and burn up excess energy, while parents can sit and take a breath, relax and recharge. “After a visit with Santa kids can play on the train, and explore. Families can stay as long as they like,” Navarro tells.
Unlike other locations, at Santa Land, visits are private. “Each family gets private time with Santa at Santa’s house,” Navarro explains.
As Norman Rockwell may have illustrated it, Santa’s house is a cozy, festive nook where Santa sits in a chair beside a fireplace and a beautifully decorated tree.
Volunteers from the Denville Rotary help coordinate each family’s visit, and Morris Knolls High School student volunteers from Denville’s Interact Club take the photos.
According to Hillegass, each visit takes about 15 to 20 minutes where Santa can chat with the families. She mentions that Santa even remembers the children and families that often come to see him every year.
“He’s so good with the children,” she says.
The festive ambiance and peaceful feeling of Santa Land strikes a chord with everyone.
There is no charge for photos, although Navarro asks that a donation be given. Donations will be then utilized for Denville Rotary’s Community Projects.
With so much care involved, Santa Land is a calming, pleasant family experience. Santa’s Rotary “elves” seek to bring back the glow of the holiday season and of family togetherness.
For children who become overwhelmed or stressed easily, or may have sensory issues, a visit to Santa Land may be ideal. “We usually do have at least one scheduled time when special needs children can visit with Santa in a safe environment,” Navarro tells.
Santa Land welcomes everyone. Even pets are invited to have photos taken with Santa.
Extremely popular, Santa Land even has its own mailbox where children can drop Santa a line, or even send him a thank you note. Children who include an address will even receive a response from Santa himself!
Not bad when you consider that at first, the very idea of Santa Land was considered to be too expensive and time-consuming for it to work. Yet despite that attitude, everyone’s enthusiasm caught fire for the idea. “All the members excitedly worked towards the common goal. Everybody wanted to get involved with Santa Land,” Navarro relates. “Because of the initial enthusiastic participation of the members, Santa Land was to grow from year to year and become a noted landmark for the town of Denville.”
“The Denville community has always been supportive of Santa Land.” Navarro enthuses. When both she and Hillegass mention the fire at Santa Land in 2017, they both can’t say enough about the reaction of the community. “They rallied around and supported us in rebuilding the damaged areas,” Navarro prides.
“The response was amazing,” Hillegass adds. “The way they came out for us, that was Santa Land’s best year ever.”
For Denville residents and non-residents alike, Santa Land is a tradition that keeps on giving. Navarro shares that many people who have grown up with the whole Santa Land experience, who have since moved out of the area, often bring back their families to share Santa Land memories and experiences with them. “We love seeing the families visit with Santa and hearing the stories of the generations who have been coming to visit us for many years. A few years ago, we even had a girl scout do some updates at Santa Land for her Gold Project. She had been a visitor to Santa Land growing up,” Navarro says.
With such a following, people might expect for Santa Land to be a stressful experience, but it is just the opposite. Navarro relates a story working the last shift of the last day of Santa Land a few years ago, “It was a very cold night of a very long holiday season and there was a long line of parents and kids waiting for Santa. As I greeted each family, I was expecting some very stressed and unhappy people. Instead, all of the families were helping each other out and saving places in line while they took turns waiting in warm cars. A Girl Scout troop showed up to sing some Christmas carols. Everyone was so grateful that Santa waited for them, that it turned into a magical night. Mayor Andes was among the residents waiting in line that night with his grandchildren. When I ran into him at an event a few months later, he told me it was one of his proudest moments as a Denville resident to have been part of that night at Santa Land.”
For a visit with Santa, Santa Land is open from now until Dec. 23rd. Hours on weekdays are from 3:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. and from 1:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. on weekends.