Handmade display of Santa and Mrs. Claus, his sleigh with presents and reindeer sees its 52nd Christmas in Radford

Built in 1967 by Radford neighbors Tony Darden and Buddy Martin, the 11-piece display pictured above that stretches across 30 feet has been displayed now for 52 straight years. The lead reindeer — undoubtedly Rudolph — has a red nose that lights up.

Back in 1967, Buddy Martin, who lived on what was then Scott Street in Radford saw an ad in the Parade magazine of the Roanoke Times for the pattern of a 30-foot wide Christmas display. It featured life-sized figures of Santa and Mrs. Claus, his sleigh loaded with presents and eight reindeer, including one with a lighted nose.

Intrigued, Buddy ordered the pattern and got his neighbor, Tony Darden, involved. Together they went to work, cutting the eleven pieces for the complex display out of wood and then shellacking them. They needed several weeks of earnest work to complete the work, mostly because the woodwork for the antlers of the eight deer required some precision cutting that Tony’s son, Kem Darden, said “took forever.”

The display went into the yard in time for the Christmas of 1967. Since then, for three weeks every December, it has been a part of Christmas for the neighborhood of what is now Walker Street.

The reindeer have pulled Santa’s sleigh to different places over the years, always close to the Darden home. This year, though, the location was chosen for a specific reason. Santa’s sleigh has halted in Kem Darden’s backyard, a spot not used before because it can’t be seen from Walker Street. The spot was chosen so Kem’s dad, Tony, one of the original builders, and Kem’s mom, Helen, could see it. Tony is 93; Helen is 94. They are both in failing health and homebound. Now, though, they can sit in the family living room every night and enjoy the lighted sleigh and Rudolph’s red nose for what the family fears may be their last Christmas together.

The reindeer may look like they behave themselves, but a couple of them have their own stories. One year when Santa halted his sleigh next to the street, one of the deer, probably Blizten, considering his reputation, got into an altercation. He came out the worse for wear, winding up with an arrow in his side. After some first aid, he recovered quickly, but the scar is still there in the form of a little hole the arrowhead left behind. The identify of the wielder of the bow was never discovered.

(L-R) Mandy Martin, Kim Martin, Day Darden and Kem Darden represent the second generation to enjoy the 52-year-old Christmas display with its life-sized Santa Claus..

And Rudolph apparently once got really rowdy. Following the literal command of the Christmas song, “Run, Run, Rudolph,” he abandoned his duties and ran away from home. One holiday season, the family awakened to discover that Rudolph was missing.. Kim Martin put an ad in the paper about the theft asking for information. He said no questions would be asked; he just wanted Rudolph back home.

Never fear, though. A friend stepped up, put his trusty wood saws to work and carved a stand-in Rudolph in time for the display to boast a full contingent of deer.. So there was a Rudolph in the lineup that Christmas; it just wasn’t the original.

But the following spring, a family friend called Kim Martin and told them he thought he had found the miscreant who had purloined Rudolph. That friend was visiting another friend and discovered Rudolph in the house hanging on the wall in the bedroom of a teen-aged son.

The deer have pretty much behaved themselves ever since,

And for 52 years, the handiwork and skill of a pair of men with the Christmas spirit have delighted the neighborhood’s children and adults with a hand-carved, hand-painted special piece of Christmas.