Veterans and newcomers alike enjoy Cocoa with Santa Saturday at OAC

Santa and Mrs. Claus made their annual appearance at the Owatonna Arts Center Saturday morning to help create indelible Christmas memories for local families.

While the center is of course focused on art, it’s also a community gathering place, conducting events throughout the year like Cocoa with Santa, said Silvan Durben, the center’s creative director. In fact, he refers to the main room of the arts center as “Owatonna’s living room,” due to the number and variety of events conducted there.

The Owatonna Arts Center has long offered a holiday event for children, first, Breakfast with Santa, and now, for the last several years, Cocoa with Santa, Durben said. The breakfast, due to the catering of meals, required advanced planning and pre-registration, but Cocoa with Santa allows “families to get up in the morning, drop in (at the center), and then go about their Saturday.”

Visitors Saturday included both veterans of Cocoa with Santa and first timers.

“We come every year,” said Jill Anderson, who was on hand with her family, including her husband, Paul, their daughter, Raelyn, 5, and their 2-year-old twins, Joey and Isley. “It’s quiet,” unlike “a mall.”

“Santa has time to talk to the kids here,” said Cheryl Anderson, grandmother of Raelyn, Joey, and Isley. Cocoa with Santa “is a well-kept secret.”

In addition to meeting Santa Claus, hearing Mrs. Claus play carols on a piano, and munching on cookies and hot chocolate, “we get to peruse the art,” Jill said. Certainly, “we’ll take a photo by the big tree they have.”

The Owatonna Arts Center decorates for Christmas each year — this year’s theme is “It’s Christmas Once Again” — including several trees throughout the building, and “our collection (of holiday art) has grown through the years,” Durben said. “We have a number of objects with a winter theme.”

While Cocoa with Santa is a tradition for the Anderson family, Megan Dobberstein may have started a new Christmas custom Saturday with her “Little” from Big Brothers Big Sisters.

“This is our first year together — we were matched in July — and we thought this would be a good Christmas thing to do together,” Dobberstein said. “Plus, where else can you have cocoa with Santa?”

Though they’ve only been “Big” and “Little” for about six months, “it’s been awesome so far,” and BBBS is “such a neat organization,” she said. Volunteering with BBBS is “a way to give back and create a new relationship with an amazing kid in the community.”

In addition to the art on the walls, the OAC is a place to “have an experience,” and “everyone is welcome,” Durben said. At Cocoa with Santa, “you don’t need to be a little kid to sit on Santa’s lap and make your request for Christmas.”

Reach Reporter Ryan Anderson at 507-444-2376 or follow him on Twitter @randerson_ryan.