Are NorthPark's vintage Christmas decorations totally nuts?

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Santa and his ‘Rangifer tarandus’ have hung around NorthPark Center for 48 holidays and counting. Why do they keep coming back?

 

by PATRICIA MORA

Dallas is known for its willingness to scrap tasteful bungalows to make way for showy manses that are the epitome of Disneytecture. People look askance, then acquiesce to a belief that “it’s just that kind of city.” The result? Monetary sheen is at odds with a reverence for the past and a sensibility that cossets us in ritual and tradition. If the latter is what you’re yearning for, you can head for the Alps, where folks still whittle and goats still wear bells. There is another option: You can take a closer look at something that has been with us for decades, almost five of them. We refer to the made-from-comestibles Christmas decorations at NorthPark Center.

When NorthPark was built in 1965, it claimed to be the largest air-conditioned retail space on the planet. By anyone’s calculus, that signals ambition. But its success was not the corollary of sheer volume: Its allure, in addition to hosting the trendiest and swankiest of stores, was a cache of art that grew to include the largest private collection of sculpture in the world. This was done under the aegis of real-estate magnate Ray Nasher and his arts-savvy wife, Patsy. She kept a careful eye on the landscaping, art and seasonal décor that helped make NorthPark one of the most successful retail enterprises in the world. It smacked of excellence since its inception, and still does.

 The reindeers have fiberglass bodies covered in pecans, with almond faces and necks, and raisin antlers and hooves. Photograph by Nan Coulter. 

In fact, the center still employs a full-time artist-in-residence. Jeff Green, a trained sculptor, fills that role. He is a member of NorthPark’s engineering team, with the maintenance of art and the designing of holiday decor a specialty. His latest endeavor? Spending hundreds of hours meticulously preparing Santa, his sled and multiple reindeer — including one named Rudolph — for the November 17 installation. The jolly crew was part of Mrs. Nasher’s vision for the shopping center’s holiday season in 1965 and has since become an integral part of festive excursions for thousands of families. Astonishingly, Santa and his reindeer are covered in perishables: red and black licorice, black walnuts, almonds, raisins, pecans, marshmallows, gum balls and Smarties. (Those are how Santa gets his peachy complexion.) Each piece is carefully refurbished each year before being hoisted into place above the pool located in the area dubbed Neiman Marcus Court.

 NorthPark Center’s Santa has a Styrofoam body covered in licorice and marshmallows; his eyes are gum balls and his face will be fully covered in Smarties. Photograph by Nan Coulter. 

Consider this: When the piece was first seen at NorthPark, the times were radically tumultuous. After all, 1965 brought the deployment of U.S. combat troops to Vietnam and the assassination of Malcolm X. And the country — not to mention Dallas particularly — was still reeling from the assassination of a president. In those times, a place of refuge and holiday cheer was precisely what the public longed for. That solace is still being sought in 2013. Almost 50 years on, that is exactly what NorthPark delivers, and the whimsical Santa and his reindeer have evolved into something called tradition — something almost unheard of in contemporary America. In any sane world, that’s anything but nutty.

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