Technically, Santa is supposed to be up on the rooftop, but for the past 22 years, he’s stood proudly in the parking lot at the White Elephant store on East Sprague Avenue in Spokane Valley.
But last year, he actually was up on the store’s roof because the White Elephant’s white elephant, who normally resides there, was off being repaired. Today, Santa is back in place on his 4-foot platform by the light pole. There he stands, arm raised in a perpetual wave to passersby.
He might look familiar to longtime Spokane residents. His previous home at holiday time was up on the awning of The Crescent department store downtown. The Crescent’s annual holiday display – complete with animated figures in the windows and overseen by the 13-foot tall Santa – drew scores of children each year, children who pressed their faces up against the store window and gazed up at the towering Santa – part of the delights of that special time of year.
One of those children was Pat Conley, who is now co-owner of the White Elephant stores in Spokane.
“I remember standing at those windows at The Crescent when I was a child,” he said. “I remember that Santa. I remember being in awe.”
(The Crescent ceased being The Crescent in 1988 and operated as Frederick & Nelson until it was closed four years later.)
In the late 1980s, Conley saw an ad in the newspaper for a 13-foot tall Santa. “I mean, how many of them could there be out there?” he thought. He went to the garage sale, and there was Santa, in two pieces, under the deck at the Ponderosa area home of the former employee of The Crescent who had purchased the Santa when the store closed.
Conley called his father, John, who opened the original White Elephant on North Division in 1946, and asked him about buying it. “Dad said, ‘No, we really don’t need that,’ and my brother agreed,” Conley said. “But I thought the heck with that and went right ahead and got it. Now everyone in the family thinks it was a pretty good thing to do.”
So Conley loaded the two-piece, 200-pound Santa in his pickup truck, legs sticking up over the cab and upper torso facing backward, with a permanent wave to cars behind him. And he’s been a fixture at the store ever since.
One year they left him up all year long, and Santa was subject to vandalism. Now he’s just out between Thanksgiving and the end of the year. He’s been fiberglassed into a permanent one-piece model, a picture frame was converted into a belt buckle to give his black belt a more three-dimensional look and he’s been airbrushed and painted.
“We always get calls in the fall from people asking when we’re going to put him out, and kids still enjoy coming to look up at him,” Conley said, including this year when his 18-month-old grandson Gunner Conley got all wide-eyed when he got his first look.
In the off-season Santa has a special location inside the company’s storage facility, a spot where he’s kept safe and clean.
“We treat him like royalty,” Conley said. “He is Santa Claus, after all.”
There may not be The Crescent department store any more, but the tradition of The Crescent’s Santa still lives. And who can’t believe in that at this time of year?
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