Like so many Minnesota families, the Pederson family of Bloomington made an annual pre-Christmas pilgrimage to the downtown Minneapolis Dayton’s (later, Macy’s) to see Santa, shop and share a meal at the stalwart Oak Grill.
Lesley Ernst, one of six Pederson siblings who shared in the decades-long tradition, recalled four generations of her family touring the magical eighth-floor holiday dioramas that brought folklore and fairy tales to life.
“I went to every single one since they started,” she said, from perusing “Santa’s Enchanted Forest” as a girl in 1963, to wheeling a granddaughter’s stroller through the final “A Day in the Life of an Elf” in 2016.
Ernst was heartbroken to learn that Macy’s was closing its downtown store in 2017.
“On the very last day they were open, I went down there one last time just to go through the store and reminisce,” she said. When she told her sister, Jill Pederson, that she was headed to the going-out-of-business sale, Pederson jokingly said, “If you find one of those elves for $20, buy it for me.”
Pederson didn’t know what she was in for.
When Ernst arrived at Macy’s, only one floor of merchandise remained.
“I walked in and the first thing I saw was these bunk beds with elves in them,” she recalled.
A Christmas miracle! Then, she looked at the tag: $900. She looked again. The original prices had been drastically marked down.
“I found a clerk and said, ‘What does this $30 pay for?’ ” Ernst remembered. “And he said, ‘The whole bed with both the elves and the motor,’ and I said, ‘I’ll take it.’ ”
The store was closing in a matter of hours, so Ernst hastily disassembled the bed and crammed it and the elves into her Camry. Then, she drove to her sister’s home in Rush City, Minn., where the two spent the better part of the day fixing and reassembling the bed.
They named the animatronic elf Candy (she’s clutching a candy cane) and the stationary one Jasper and started making up stories about the elves’ preferences and antics, as if they were more than wood-and-plaster dolls. Ernst even set the elves’ story to music and made a YouTube video.
The sisters say they have “joint custody” of the elves, though they live with Pederson — in the front window of her living room during the holiday season, bunking in her bedroom the rest of the year. The Christmas characters have become such a fixture that a few of Pederson’s elderly neighbors have adopted them as surrogate grandchildren, making them hand-sewn quilts.
As an over-the-road trucker, Pederson is often away from home. So Ernst likes to surprise her by stopping by Pederson’s house and redecorating the elves. She’s accessorized them with plastic eggs for Easter, bedecked them in patriotic colors for the July 4th holiday, surrounded them with a summery beach scene of sand pails, fins and swim goggles.
“She’s cleaning her basement out and decorating the elves,” Pederson joked.
Pederson only turns Candy on when she’s showing a visitor how she turns in her bunk bed. (She’s afraid of wearing out the animatronic motor or starting the house on fire.) And she’s considering making a free-standing glass house to display the elves outdoors year-round.
“It was definitely an impulse purchase, but I have no regrets,” Ernst said. “We have more fun making up stories about them.”
The sisters have started a Facebook page for Candy and Jasper, in case other eighth-floor figures want to “connect.” Perhaps a family reunion is in order?
Pederson’s and Ernst’s other siblings definitely won’t be hosting. Their welcome of the elves was rather tepid.
“They rolled their eyes and said, ‘Don’t bring them to the cabin. Don’t bring them to our house. That’s kind of creepy. You guys are crazy.’ ” Ernst recalled. “But Jill and I are like-minded — we love our elves. Yeah, they creep people out, but we don’t care.”
The Dayton’s/Macy’s holiday displays were among the largest in the country, attracting roughly a half-million people annually. After the store called it quits, a lucky subset of institutions and private collectors (including Ernst and Pederson) picked up pieces of beloved local holiday history.
While some of the almost life-size characters are on display around the Twin Cities and at Duluth’s Bentleyville light display, others remain stashed in storage, awaiting the opportunity to delight local children — as well as adults.
From among the ballet dancers, carolers, reindeer and rats, curators from the Minnesota Historical Society selected three characters with cross-generational appeal: Pinocchio, Cinderella, and Harry Potter’s Prof. Severus Snape. They’re currently in storage, on view for those who take a tour, generally reserved for members.
Hennepin Theatre Trust, the nonprofit owners of three downtown Minneapolis theaters, got 38 characters, plus miscellaneous wigs, clothes, hands and feet. (The trust plans to display them but estimates it will take about $15,000 to refurbish them.)
After the institutions made their picks, assisted by some of the artists who had worked on the shows, the remaining figures went out on Macy’s clearance-sale floor.
Matt Dunn, a magician who owns Scream Town, the Halloween attraction in Chaska, bought a dozen of the figures he remembered from childhood. Last year, he displayed a cluster of Cinderella figures in a store-window-size case outside his Plymouth home.
This year, he and his neighbor, who sets up elaborate holiday light and music displays, merged their collections. Their joint display can be viewed at 4130 Juneau Lane N., Plymouth, through Dec. 28.
Bill Ewald, another longtime fan of the eighth-floor shows, recalled spending hours as a kid trying to figure out what made the characters move. When they went up for sale, Ewald took pity on the misfits.
“I saw a collection of pieces that needed a lot of repair, in terms of motors, missing arms, hands, ears, antlers, feet, and I thought, ‘Gosh, those pieces are going to end up scrapped’ so I gathered as many of those as I could in a couple of trips and hauled them home to a patient wife,” he recalled.
Motivated to preserve a piece of Minneapolis history, and by an appreciation for the “tremendous service” Dayton’s provided the city with its free exhibits, Ewald set to work refurbishing seven elves and Prancer the Reindeer. He installed new motors and built replacement parts; his wife sewed new clothing. The elaborate scene is now on display in the front window of his Minnetrista home.
Every weekday morning, when the bus to a nearby middle school passes by, the driver slows down so the kids can take a peek. Dog walkers and wreath-sellers ask if they can come inside for a better look. A visiting water heater repairman took photos.
“I put it together to humor the children, but it’s the adults who are getting a kick out of it,” Ewald said.