To capture the holiday mood, the mall strings 21 miles of lights throughout the interior, including curtains of bulbs that drip from the ceiling like silvery waterfalls. Through Dec. 23, choirs, church groups and other performers belt out jolly jingles. And in January, a 40-foot-tall ice castle will transform a one-acre parking lot into a frozen Camelot, complete with throne rooms that will effectively chill your buns.
The destination mall attracts about 40 million visitors a year, including 220,000 on Black Friday. The elf working the Santa station told me that over Thanksgiving weekend, little ones waited for up to three hours to sit on St. Nick’s lap. On a colorless Wednesday, however, I walked right up to his red-clothed knee and took a seat.
Santa and I chitchatted for a while before I presented my wish. He told me that he only works one day out of the year and compared himself to a FedEx truck. We discussed Mrs. Claus (she waits for him at home) and his busy schedule, which leaves him no time to drop into the bar for drinks with the fellas.
Finally, I had to stop delaying the inevitable. There was a kid waiting in the wings, and Santa probably needed to restore the feeling in his leg before his next guest. Under pressure, I stammered out some ideas, finally blurting out a grandiose wish about making the world a better, more compassionate place. He looked at me with caring blue eyes and said, “Don’t you want an iPad? It’s a little easier to deliver.”
If I discover a flat box with an Apple insignia under my tree, I’ll know that Santa really does exist, and that he doesn’t take instructions very well.
“Willkommen,” read the sign along the main road leading into New Ulm. More cheery banners followed. By the time I’d reached the historic downtown, I was fluent in German welcoming.
After the artificiality of the Mall of America, I embraced the genuineness of the German town 100 miles southwest of the Twin Cities. Fresh garlands hung like silly mustaches across Minnesota Avenue, the main drag. Christmas trees girly with red velvet bows lined up along the sidewalks as if awaiting a parade. The air was filled with the piped-in sounds of polka, oompah and other Germans-in-lederhosen music.
“New Ulm is echt. A lot of what you see is falsch,” said local historian George Glotzbach, using the German words for “authentic” and “fake.”
The town was founded by Turners, Free Thinkers from Ulm, Germany, who landed in Cincinnati and Chicago in the mid-1800s. They migrated northwest to establish New Ulm, the “perfect socialist society in the wilds of the West,” said George. A few years later, a wave of Bohemian-Germans arrived, sticking their flag on the banks of the Minnesota River in the neighborhood of Goosetown, named after the feathery honkers.