(Articles only available in English / Articles disponibles seulement en Anglais)
Tens of hundreds – nay – tens of thousands of baby-boomers hold a very special sentiment towards the town of Vars.
Each year in late-November or early-December of the 1950’s, parents of children in the Ottawa Valley area made their way to the Frieman’s Department store (currently the Bay at Rideau) on a matter of the utmost importance. At 9:00 a.m. when the doors opened there was a mad scurry up the stairwells, up the elevators, and up the escalators to the fourth floor office where Mr. A.J. Frieman, the store’s owner, gave away hundreds of free tickets for a train ride to Vars to pick up Santa Claus and bring him to the store in Ottawa. I remember thinking that my mother had wings on her heels because she always managed to be among the first ones in the long line-up at the office.
The following Saturday morning, I along with my brothers and sisters and my Mom (my dad stayed home to watch the dog and cats) and countless numbers of other families, would gather at the Ottawa train station on Rideau Street where the Conference Centre is now located. We would wait at the boarding ramp where we could see the Christmas-decorated steam engine chug towards us. There was lots of steam, and lots of wheel- sounds, and lots of children squealing with joy, and lots of lively Christmas music raining down on us. Sometimes, despite repeated warnings from my mother, I would reach out and touch the slow moving train just to make sure that I was not dreaming. It was a challenge to get seats together, and it was an even greater challenge to get a window seat. Then the trip began – We were going to Vars!
At the railway crossings the engine whistle would toot its warning, the train would slow down a tad. At Navan the train slowed to a crawl and we would instinctively turn towards the windows and wave and smile at the bystanders lining the way. The truly big waves and the huge smiles were reserved for Vars where the whole town seemed to turn out. We smiled and waved so much that our teeth hurt and our arms ached. Although we could only see a few houses from the train, I then thought that Vars was a mega-city with Christmas toy factories on every street.
Most years, Santa was waiting for us at the boarding ramp with the Varsites. One year, he was not there as we arrived, and then shortly after we spotted a helicopter circling the train and it landed near the ramp and who else but Santa emerged when the dust settled and visibility returned. Oh my! It was magical! Vars was magical! Santa got on the train at the front end. The train engine slowly started to purr and the long train started back towards Ottawa in reverse. No sooner had we passed the sign that said Vars when elves dressed in green and red velvet appeared with cookies and chocolate milk, and red straws for each of us. The bakery of Morrison-Lamothe, owned by Jean Piggott and Grete Hale’s father provided all the treats. Mr. Morrison, Jean and Grete were sometimes with the elves as they distributed the most delicious cookies. I did not know who they were then, but I often see Jean nowadays and I don’t hesitate to bow in reverence. Coincidentally, by the time we finished our treats, Santa would arrive at our train compartment. He seemed to know many of our names — as he entered we would hear him say “Where is Mary? Where is John? Where is Tim? Where is Ann? Where is Bobby?” His suit was real velvet and his boots were real leather. I always managed to walk with him for a few seconds while holding his warm hand. He lingered in each compartment long enough to have a short conversation with each of us and our parents. Then he was on to the next room. But, we knew we would see him again this day, so, we were not sad. Next came more elves with candy canes. Could anyone ask for anything more?
The arrival in Ottawa was always well organized. Santa would get off first and the children would follow in a scene reminiscent of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. We would all walk the one block to the Frieman’s store and then go to the fifth floor for our official visit with Santa to present him with our Christmas wish list while our parents visited tbe toy department which opened on that date. Our last stop was for a 5 cent malted milk in the basement of the Frieman’s store. No other store at that time, or since, has been able to offer such a delicious glass of malted milk. No other store at that time, or since, has been able to offer such a magical day. No other town at that time, or since, has been able to produce such a wonderful Christmas memory. Thank you Vars.
Q & A:
Did Ottawa Ever Have a Santa Claus Train at Christmas?
Lewis Miskell, Ottawa ON Ottawa’s Freimans Department Store had a Santa Claus train that lasted until 1970. The train ran on a Saturday in early December from Union Station to Vars on Canadian National’s Alexandria Subdivision (the railway’s line to Montreal). At Vars, it met Santa who, in later years, arrived by helicopter. He rode the train with the children back to Union Station and then went to Freimans to begin the visits by the kids until Christmas. Toronto had a Santa train as well. There have been others in connection with tourist operations in recent years.
(Thanks to Bruce Chapman, Bob Meldrum, Bernie Geiger for the information)