KINGSBURG – Everyone may look forward to seeing Santa at the end of holiday parades, but it’s Mrs. Claus that brings smiles to residents’ faces all year long.

Paulette ‘Polly’ Halford has been known to dress up as not only a leprechaun and the Easter bunny, but at this time of year, as Mrs. Claus to bring a little extra joy to the community.

“I’ve always considered myself eccentric because I do what I do. I think part of it’s because I didn’t have children but I like to please people and I love kids!”

Halford’s been dressing up since she moved to town 34 years ago. Now, it’s a second generation of children that she greets as they visit Downtown Draper Street.

“Grown-ups will walk up and say ‘I took a picture of you when I was a kid.’

Halford is a transplant from Niles, Calif., where she grew up with her twin brother, Gene, on the family farm. She grew up in simpler times tending pigs and chickens and helping with chores in their fruit orchard and vegetable garden.

“We had it all because that’s what you did so you could barter. We sold a hog for half a beef or we’d sell some eggs for a gallon of milk,” she said recalling her youth. “When we were growing up, we picked apricots, cherries or grapes. You were expected to help back then and now I think kids are missing out on something.”

Since railroads ran near the property, Halford said she and her brother would often watch the trains chugging by and would sneak one of their mother or grandmother’s pie over to vagabonds riding the rails. Alameda Creek was also nearby where they’d go frogging or fishing, too.

“Our property backed up to a railroad and there was one going in one direction and another going the other way. We had hobos that lived in the jungle of trees. You never had to worry about them back then. They wouldn’t even think of hurting a kid,” she said of the men passing through. “I met lawyers and businessmen out of New York who’d lost money and couldn’t afford to keep their families. They just started riding the rails.”

While most have the notion that Mrs. Claus spends her days in the kitchen baking cookies, Halford said that’s only partly true. While she has baked up to 144 dozens of cookies to share with the local fire and police departments in years past, she’s no sissy. A self-proclaimed tomboy, Halford says she still has a yearning to sit behind the wheel of some large, earth-moving equipment to fulfill a childhood wish.

“My dad would give us little blocks and we’d make road ways. One Christmas, my brother got a dump truck and grader, but I got a doll. I stuck that in the closet because I’m a tomboy. I took that grader away from him and usually played with that.”

Halford started working for PG&E when she was 18 and attended Hayward State College where she took classes on California’s history. Her intent was to become a school teacher but she wound up continuing to work at PG&E where she met her first husband, Frank Halford from Dinuba. Her second husband was George Page who owned Page’s Funeral Chapel in Selma. She ran Polly’s High Street Café then and said she loves cooking for a crowd to put a smile on customers’ faces.

Although she never had children of her own, Halford helped raise three sons with her first husband. “They all considered me like a mom. But the oldest was 6-feet-4 and called me his little mama.”

Once they retired and moved to Kingsburg in 1984, Halford says she made friends with shop owners at The Village Mall.

Since she loves working outside, she volunteered with the Beautification Committee to keep downtown’s corner flower beds in bloom.

“Every Tuesday and Thursday, I was either planting flowers or digging. In the Bay Area, I’d turn my neighbor’s bushes into animals. I love getting dirt on my hands. It just makes me feel like I’m with God since He started all this.”

She recalls meeting Sandy Paige who previously owned For the Birds and came up with an idea to put a smile on visitors and local school children’ faces during the holidays.

“I first started dressing up as a leprechaun 25 years ago for St. Patrick’s Day on March 17,” Halford said of a costume she made up by sewing stuffed shamrocks onto bib overalls and wearing a big green tie with leprechaun shoes and a hat. She added green stickers to her cheeks and even went to a local elementary school to read.

“The kids knew that leprechauns are tiny so they looked at me funny. I told them I was allowed to be the world’s first large leprechaun so I could share their story.”

Then she added dressing up in a head-to-toe bunny costume giving out chocolate eggs.

Halford found the red and white, fur-lined Mrs. Claus outfit and dresses it up with her mother’s Christmas brooches and a white wig.

Starting in December, she dons the outfit and opens up the shops at The Village Mall, fills in as needed and spends time greeting visitors and smiling for pictures with shoppers up and down Downtown. When children see her, they often ask how she came into town without Santa’s sled.

“I said I rode Blitzen in and he’ll come back to pick me up. When they asked about all the other reindeer and the sled, I said that’s for Santa only when he’s making deliveries. They even asked about the elves.”

Gypsy’s Attic owner Laurene Runner said she appreciates Halford’s generosity.

“When you say ‘Polly’ everybody knows her. She crochets and gives pink scarves to the Kingsburg Cancer Volunteers and makes afghans for local veterans,” Runner said.

Greeting passersby with hugs, Halford came across Tiffany Crites who was ringing a bell for the Salvation Army’s kettle drive that morning with her daughter, Rebekah Crites.

“When you see her it’s the joy that she spreads. It’s part of your childhood,” Tiffany Crites said.

Halford said the whole point of what she’s doing is to bring a smile to as many people as she can.

“When I moved to this town, I’d see a lot of kids and wondered what I could do to make them happy? If one person smiles at me, whether it’s a child or an adult, it’s made my day.”

Halford encourages others to do the same. Sharing a smile is a simple kindness she thinks is needed now more than ever.

“I was watching a program and these two girls were talking about being bullied. They said if everybody could be nice to somebody at least once a day, maybe it would help us. The way the world’s going with all these shootings, it makes you wonder. What’s going through their head to make them do this? It makes you wonder if they could have gotten help. So if I can make one person smile, that’s what I care about. I go home with a good feeling.”

Halford will continue to be available as Mrs. Claus every Friday and Saturday for photos with pets, children or adults at either the Village Mall in the mornings or strolling around Downtown until Christmas.

She’s about to turn 71 on Jan. 1 and Halford has no plans to stop sharing smiles now.

“I just love people. I’ll continue to do this as long as I’m healthy. If I get one smile out of somebody, it’s made my day.”

And while she’s crossed one item off her bucket list, there’s still one more adventure she hopes to accomplish someday.

“I think everybody should have a bucket list. I wanted to own a restaurant and I did that. The other one is driving a grader. George even bought me a little tiny grader and I still have that. So one of these days, I’m going to find somebody that has a grader and even if I just sit it and take a picture, I’ll have done everything on my bucket list.”

The reporter can be reached at 583-2427 or lbrown@selmaenterprise.com.

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