By IAN AUSTIN • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
ONEONTA – The end of the Christmas season will mark the end of an era for a Southside Mall mainstay.
For over two decades, Vera Stewart, aka Mrs. Claus, has been volunteering for the Salvation Army by ringing bells and holding doors at her station outside of JCPenney, spreading cheer to holiday shoppers. Dressed in red velvet with white trim, the Southside Mrs. Claus has become a mainstay of the Christmas season to many visitors young and old.
“When they first asked me to be a bell ringer for the Salvation Army, I decided to try it.” said Stewart, “I began doing it only on weekends, then I went to five days a week.”
When she started, Stewart assembled her Mrs. Claus outfit from various dresses and other pieces she found, but then a former Mrs. Clause gave her the festive red velvet dress and bonnet that she has become known for ever since. With her own brand of spirit, Vera has consistently been one of the top bell-ringers in Otsego County.
“When put spirit and love into it, then it’s easy to put the Christmas spirit into other people!” said Stewart, “You can’t just sit in a corner. You have to make eye contact, wish them a “Merry Christmas”, hold the door for them! That’s the fun part! If you respond to people, they will respond back. ”
Stewart, an avid volunteer with the soup kitchen, Meal with a Message, and The Lord’s Table, she loves to give back to the community. “I love it. Some people want to get paid, but for me I am glad to stand out here in the cold because I know it is going to help people. I’m here for the people who are hungry.”
But for Stewart, the most memorable part of all her years as Mrs. Claus has been the children. “Some kids are scared of Santa, It could be the beard, it could be his size, but some just find it it easier to talk to me. I make sure to tell them I will relay the message to Santa over dinner.” Stewart says she will miss seeing the children grow up. “I’ve been doing this for so long, adults tell me they remember me from when they were small, and they are with their own kids now!”
Stewart has decided to hang up her hat after this Christmas, for health reasons, and says she knows she will miss it next Christmas. “I don’t know who will miss the most,” said Stewart.”The people I greet or me greeting people.”
Make sure to stop by, bid farewell and get a picture with Mrs. Claus now through Christmas Eve, from 10am-8pm. outside of JCPenney at the Southside Mall in Oneonta.