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Sherri Richards, Published December 11 2011

Fargo’s own Mrs. Claus

If you go

What: Santa’s Village at Rheault Farm

When: 4 to 8 p.m. Wednesday through Friday and Dec. 21-22; 1 to 8 p.m. Saturday, Sunday and Dec. 23

Where: 2902 25th St. S., Fargo

Info Admission is free but donations of canned goods, cash and toys accepted. (701) 499-7788.

FARGO - For Bev Lee, Christmas begins in October. That’s when Lee starts making the half-mile trek from her south Fargo home to Rheault Farm, decorating inside the 1918 farmhouse and nearby bunkhouse.

Lee taps into her 25 years or experience as a decorator for deLendrecies and Herberger’s to help transform the site into Santa’s Village, the Fargo home of Santa and Mrs. Claus. It’s a position she’s held since 2004, after answering an advertisement from the park district looking for two very special seasonal employees.

This year, Lee used teddy bears and snowmen to decorate the bunkhouse, where kids can make an ornament, color or play board games. Ribbon-adorned trees dot the farmhouse.

Lee, a mother of two and grandmother to four grandkids and one great-granddaughter, decorates her own home with the same care. Lighted garland wraps around the outside stairs. White lights and blue and gold ornaments festoon a Christmas tree.

In late November, Lee moves aside to make way for Mrs. Claus, who bears a striking resemblance to Lee.

Wearing a red and white fur gown, Mrs. Claus rides alongside St. Nicholas on the last float in the annual Fargo-Moorhead Parade of Lights. “A lot of kids will say ‘I know you’re the real Mrs. Claus because you’re in the parade,’ ” she says.

Once the holly jolly couple settles into the farmhouse, Santa puts on his big overalls and Mrs. Claus dons a long red skirt and festive sweater vest. A red hat tops her curly white hair.

For the next few weeks, Mrs. Claus stays busy in the kitchen. After kids visit with Santa in his sitting room they make their way into the kitchen, where she helps them decorate frosted sugar cookies with colorful sprinkles. She tells them some of her signature jokes.

What do gingerbread men put on their beds? Cookie sheets.

What do snowmen eat for breakfast? Frosted flakes.

Why does Santa Claus have three gardens? So he can hoe, hoe, hoe.

“She loves her jokes,” says Allison Bakke, program coordinator for the Fargo Park District. “We try to find her a couple new ones every year if she doesn’t herself.”

Mrs. Claus also encourages the kids to write a letter to Santa in the nearby barn. She reminds them to leave out two cookies for Santa, because he’ll bring one home to her.

She answers the children’s questions. They wonder if Rudolph is at the farm with them, but she explains that he already knew how to fly so didn’t need to make the trip. They ask her first name. (It’s Jessica, by the way.)

She also likes to share a special muffin recipe with the older kids. Like Lee, Mrs. Claus is known for the goodies she bakes for others, especially her pies. “I bake something for the elves and Santa every day,” she says.

“It blows my mind that she finds new items to bake the 20-some days that we’re out there,” Bakke says.

Mrs. Claus says the baking helps make the home smell like grandma’s. It’s appropriate, considering how she feels about the teenage elves that help the Clauses each year.

“You get so attached, these are like my grandkids,” she says.

Santa and Mrs. Claus get a lot of calls to make appearances elsewhere, she says, but between reading to day care groups on weekdays, Saturday Breakfasts with Santa and all that baking, there just isn’t time.

Once the Clauses head north for the rest of winter, Lee returns to Santa Village in January to take down the decorations. She volunteers at the Bethany Retirement Living Center coffee shop in February. She also helps with the nursery at her church, Triumph Lutheran in Moorhead.

In April, Lee heads to the lakes for the season. She returns in the fall to begin her holiday duties at Rheault Farm again. This year, she delayed knee replacement surgery to make sure she could do the job.

“You see more happiness. I could be home cleaning house and not feel that. I can see rewards working with the kids, their smiling faces and hearing their stories and the hugs you get,” Lee says.

She keeps a scrapbook of the seven years she’s done this job. It includes pictures of the trees she’s decorated, the much-loved elves and the babies Mrs. Claus has held.

“I’m proud of the place,” Lee says. “I’m proud to say I work for the Park District.”

Mrs. Claus’s Favorite Muffins

1 box yellow cake mix

1 can pumpkin

3 eggs

1/2 package chocolate chips

Beat cake mix, pumpkin and eggs with fork. Add chocolate chips. (If making mini-muffins, use miniature chocolate chips.)

Pour into greased muffin tins. Bake 18 minutes at 350 degrees. Makes 18 muffins.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Sherri Richards at (701) 241-5556