Almost a year after he was thrown out of his Carpinteria home, Santa -- actually, the 5-ton freeway statue in his likeness -- had the last laugh Friday when 200 friends showed up for a party in his honor.
The fiftysomething Father Christmas, who makes no secret of recently undergoing a full face-lift, now lives on a freeway-adjacent pad near Oxnard. And the jolly old gent was in top form for his very own dedication ceremony and coming-out festivities.
Thanks to an outpouring of donations from community members, the statue has undergone more than $75,000 in improvements since January, when it was evicted from its longtime home atop a Carpinteria candy store and ended up on a plot of land between a mobile home park and an auto dealership just north of Oxnard.
"You sure are lucky to have him here in Ventura County," said the event's master of ceremonies, disc jockey Les Nelson. "A hundred years from now, when we drive by, he'll still be here."
For a while last year, it looked as if Santa's days were numbered.
After Santa spent more than 50 years waving to motorists along U.S. Highway 101, its owners decided that the chicken-wire-and-plaster statue no longer meshed with the seaside-village feel they were seeking for the stores they owned on Santa Claus Lane's retail strip.
Local preservationists argued that the statue was an example of "vernacular art" and fought for its preservation, but after much debate Santa Barbara County supervisors allowed its removal from the candy-store roof.
The statue was placed in a neighbor's driveway while the county and preservationists searched for a new home. At the eleventh hour, Mike Barber, president of the Garden Acres Mutual Water Co., read about Santa's plight and donated an empty lot his company owned.
After a 30-mile, logistically challenging freeway odyssey to get the old guy from Carpinteria to Ventura County, Barber and a team of volunteers began working on everything from new paint to fencing for Santa. First they built a concrete foundation and repaired the statue. Even with 1,800 feet of shrink wrap, nylon straps and duct tape, Santa's arm and some of his gift bag had fallen off during the move.
Next, they removed the old paint and brought in a Santa Barbara artist to redo his face. Twenty-five gallons of paint later, Santa looks like new.
Neighborhood kids and local Boy Scout troops planted several redwood and evergreen trees, and a green wrought-iron fence was put up to guard Santa from vandals. At night, lights around the statue illuminate this dusty neighborhood, which is a mixture of industrial properties and mobile homes.
"This place was all ugly, with all kinds of broken glass everywhere," said 12-year-old Brenda Martinez, who lives in a nearby mobile home park and who helped plant some of the trees. "I never thought they could build something so pretty right here."
But for many of the older people in attendance Friday, the spruced-up Santa was still the same old familiar sight from holidays past.
For parents like Lupe Cervantez, the giant, waving Kris Kringle represents a simpler time, when he and his siblings could enjoy the toy shops, merry-go-round, restaurant and Christmas-themed shops along Santa Claus Lane.
As time passed, the yule-themed attractions closed down, but Santa remained. And while he would probably never really look as right as he looked on the rooftop surrounded by all the Christmas attractions, Cervantez was relieved he'd found a place to stay.
"I just want [my children] to share a little memory of what I had," Cervantez said. "They're not going to have the same type of fun we had when we were kids, but we're real happy they moved him here."