On Friday, Nov. 29, Ahwatukee’s longest-running holiday tradition will be reprised at Millie’s Hallmark in Ahwatukee Plaza, Ahwatukee’s oldest shopping mall.
Santa’s annual arrival by helicopter to the plaza on Elliot Road at 50th Street is the centerpiece of the day’s events geared toward families.
It includes a free bouncy house, free cotton candy and popcorn, face painting, a balloon artist and magician. In addition, costumed animated film characters and Christmas carols performed by The Dickens Carolers of Phoenix.
For the fourth year, costumed performers of the Ahwatukee Nutcracker will perform a portion of their lauded 20-year holiday production, held this year on Dec. 14 and 15. The ballet, under the auspices of Dance Studio 111, begins at 10 a.m.
But all eyes will be on the skies at 11 a.m. as Santa foregoes his traditional reindeer-led sleigh to fly in on a helicopter – a tradition he began in 1981, two years after Henry “Hank” and Millie Wynberg opened the store.
Then, together with fellow Kiwanis Club of Ahwatukee members Mark Salem and the late Rev. Don Schneider, Wynberg hired a helicopter to fly Santa to the fledgling shopping area where Father Christmas was greeted by Mrs. Santa.
It was Millie Wynberg who transformed to Mrs. Santa for the special event for many years.
Now that part is played by her daughter, Linda Olsen of Ahwatukee, who with her husband Tom owned the business until selling it to current owners Don and Marilyn Crabtree in 2005.
Olsen wears the same festive Mrs. Claus outfit her mother Millie once wore, originally purchased through the Hallmark company.
“It really was and is a great thing for young families, and even those not so young,” said Olsen, 77. “I’ve been Mrs. Claus every year I’ve been in town, and I see mothers who used to bring their kids now bringing their grandchildren. When people see me in costume, I often hear them say, “Oh, the real Mrs. Claus is back!’ It’s just fun, and even more because my dad started it.”
“Santa’s Back” has become a must-do for the Friday after Thanksgiving and store manager and Ahwatukee resident Tami Shockley has watched for 24 years.
She joined Millie’s Hallmark In 1995 and has been store manager since 1996.
For the 10th year, her daughter, Ivy Schockley, is the elf assisting Mrs. Claus during Santa photos.
“It’s a special tradition that provides a lot of holiday memories,” mused Tami Shockley. “It’s such a fun event. Yes, it’s a lot of work but it’s always fun to see the children’s faces light up when the helicopter lands and Santa steps out.”
In Millie’s Hallmark, there’s definitely already “a feeling of Christmas” in the air.
There are 15 holiday trees displayed throughout the 10,000 square foot store, all decorated by themes such as “Nutcracker,” “Night Before Christmas,” “Southwest,” “Gnome” and more.
The store has a reputation for holiday collectibles, such as Byers’ Choice LTD Carolers; Department 56 current and retired pieces; Christopher Radko and 2019 Hallmark Holiday Keepsake ornaments.
Many collectors start their shopping early.
“We started getting busy in September and it just keeps going till Christmas,” said Shockley as she looked around the gaily decorated store where up to 20 sales associates assist customers in the aisles and at counters.
Millie’s Hallmark began as a “leap of faith” by the retired Wynberts, according to author, AFN columnist and Ahwatukee historian Marty Gibson.
The Wynberts convinced the Hallmark Cards headquarters that the low-density population of Ahwatukee could support an independent Hallmark store.
The store’s November 1979 opening preceded that of the Ahwatukee Plaza by two months.
Gibson also writes about Millie’s Hallmark’s beginnings in his newest book, “Historic Tales from Ahwatukee Foothills,” a must-read sequel to his debut “Phoenix’s Ahwatukee-Foothills,” published as part of Arcadia Publishing’s Images in America series of history-in-pictures books.
Other merchants in the Ahwatukee Plaza are helping to sponsor this year’s event, and many are offering Santa’s Back with special offers.
Scott Renard, owner of the restaurant Caffe Boa that has been in the Ahwatukee Plaza since 1995, said anyone mentioning Santa’s Back will receive 10 percent off their lunch tab.
Shockley said families are welcome to complimentary photos with Santa after his arrival at 11 a.m. The bounce house and activities open at 9 a.m.
For many parents like Christina Butkiewicz, bringing her children Brooklyn, 3, and Nora, 5 months, to Santa’s Back is a reminder of the wonder she had as a child witnessing the event.
“I was born in Ahwatukee and lived there my whole life,” said Butkiewicz. “It is a cherished memory from my childhood and now I’m returning every year to afford my children the same opportunity to create this memory of seeing Santa landing,” she said. “Millie’s Hallmark Santa landing has forever been my family’s kickoff to the Christmas season.”
Information: MilliesHallmark.com and Facebook.