Being Santa Claus may be magical, but it takes a lot of practice, too. So when Santa arrives in Fayetteville the weekend before Christmas, he’s here to hone his sleigh-driving skills and he’s taking Fayetteville residents along for the ride. The annual Downtown Alliance Carriage Rides with Santa are Saturday, December 17 and Sunday, December 18 from 2 p.m. until 9 p.m.

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“Now, Charlie! Now, Jacob! Now, Eli and Mikey! On, Rocky!” isn’t the usual chant you hear from Santa Claus, but no need for alarm. Local Belgian horses from Lumber Bridge fill in while Prancer and the gang is back in the North Pole training for the big day. The horses work their day jobs in the fields during the week and get one glorious weekend filling in for Santa’s reindeer once a year. It turns out that steering a horse and steering a reindeer is very similar. The children do not mind at all. “They love the horses. They want to touch the horses. The horses are very gentle,” says Kim Thomas, a longtime volunteer for Carriage Rides with Santa.

The kids have a big time of it. They get candy canes and sometimes Santa let’s them ride beside him. They are bundled up with their parents and having a good time. It’s special,” said Thomas.

The sleigh is actually a white, covered hitch wagon decorated for the holidays and accommodates up to six adults. Lap blankets will be provided to keep the chill at bay. It all makes for an enchanting night.

“The thing about the sleigh rides is that a lot of people get engaged. They pick that time to take their potential spouse out to ask the question. I’ve seen three proposals. The couples come back from the sleigh rides so happy and telling everyone about getting engaged,” said Thomas.

For Dr. Hank Parfitt, chair of Carriage Rides with Santa, the best part is the wonder in the children’s faces. “It begins when mom and dad come up with their little kid, say 3- or 4-years-old, and they are on the ground looking up at Santa, who is a pretty big guy in the first place, sitting on the driver’s box of the sleigh. It is over five feet above the ground, he’s way up there, and these little kids, who are all bundled up against the winter cold, with their head tilted back, looking at this giant Santa Claus up in the air and they are completely awestruck. It happens every time.”

The 20-minute rides begin at the Downtown Alliance Volunteer Center at 222 Hay Street and circles through Historic Fayetteville. Adults and children get the traditional children’s price of $5 per ride, because as Parfitt says, “Everyone is a child at Christmastime.” Reservations are not taken for the ride, but riders are encouraged to purchase tickets in advance on the day of the event. Any proceeds benefit downtown revitalization.

While it probably will be lovely weather for a sleigh ride together, riders can plan ahead by calling the Downtown Alliance at 222-3382 for weather updates and ride information.

Photo: Santa prepares for a carriage ride in downtown Fayetteville.

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