In the beloved holiday classic, A Christmas Story, young Ralphie is dismayed when he discovers that Little Orphan Annie’s secret decoder message was nothing more than an advertisement for Ovaltine. He exclaims, “a crummy commercial,” and tosses his cheap prize with disdain. Don’t worry, we are not going to tell you that Santa Claus is some cheap marketing gimmick invented to sell a product, and certainly not the product you may be thinking of. The true story of Santa Claus is quite fascinating, with contributions from around the world, and origins dating back hundreds of years before soft drinks were even invented. However, the story of how Santa first came to visit shopping malls and department stores across the world may be a little less altruistic.
CHRISTMAS SHOPPING BEGINS
While Christmas has always been around in America, it was quite different than the holiday we now know, and it was not always celebrated. In fact, Christmas was even outlawed from 1659 through 1681 because it promoted rambunctious partying and anti-Puritan ideas. It actually wasn’t until the early 1800s that Christmas started to become strongly associated with family, and the peaceful festival of yuletide cheer was truly started. Around this time, Washington Irving released a series of Christmas stories, centered around family, and an influx of European immigrants brought their own holiday traditions with them. With this more wholesome take on the holiday season, came a rise in gift-giving, and, as a direct result, a rise in holiday shopping. Store owners were especially eager to get rid of unwanted products towards the end of the calendar year, so they were happy to market goods as must-have Christmas gifts. Plus, they already had the perfect mascot.
In the late 1700s, the anglicized “Santa Claus” first appeared in print, and, in 1823, A Visit From St. Nicholas was first published. You may know the poem better as ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas, and it is widely considered one of the major blueprints of our modern take on Father Christmas. Just as Santa was becoming the official icon of the holiday season, his image started to appear in advertising across the country. The first documented appearance was a jewelry ad in 1820, and by the 1840s, statues of Santa were in store window displays across the land. With images of Santa Claus flooding retail stores every holiday season, it was finally time for the real thing.
THE FIRST MALL SANTA
Much like the origins of St. Nicholas himself, there is great debate over the true origin of the mall Santa. As many of these Christmas traditions started over two centuries ago, not a lot of information was well-documented, and what was documented was not well preserved. So, which store hosted the first visit from Santa Claus? It depends on who you ask.
SANTA DROPS IN ON PHILLY
J.W. Parkinson owned a dry goods store and bake shop located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and claims to have hired his neighbor to portray Kris Kringle at his store as early as December of 1841. The hired Santa Claus climbed down the chimney of the retail shop, carrying a big sack of toys slumped over his shoulder. Emblazed on the bag were the words, “My friends shop at Parkinson's." From the rooftop, Santa waved to onlookers, inviting them to come inside to shop for last-minute Christmas items. Unfortunately, there is not much documented about Santa's stop in Philly in 1841, aside from this newspaper clipping featured in the book Christmas in Pennsylvania by Alfred Shoemaker.
“Cris Cringle, or Santa Claus. Much as our young readers have heard and imagined of this worthy character as the bountiful patron of good children on Christmas Eve, they probably never expected to he hold the real personage in the very act of descending a chimney, as our friend Parkinson has shown him over his well thronged shop door in Chestnut street. He was decidedly the attraction yesterday and last evening, and monopolized more than his share of the attention of the young folks, which is usually bestowed with undivided admiration on the bon bons in the windows.”Philadelphia North American, December 25, 1841
Some people claim that Santa actually got stuck in the chimney on the way down, which could explain why this publicity stunt was not recreated, or why Santa just waved from afar and did not meet with any children. Regardless, there is no denying the magic these kids must have felt seeing Santa in-person for the very first time. However, this was still a far cry from the close-up, lap-sitting meet-and-greets Santa has become known for. And when it comes to traditional Santa visits, there is one store that has turned it into an absolute art form.
SANTA AT MACY’S
A visit to Santa at Macy’s flagship store in New York truly is a miracle on 34th Street. Prior to his arrival, Santa is the guest-of-honor of the most famous Thanksgiving parade in the country, with New Yorkers and tourists alike booking their timeslots via online reservations weeks in advance. Leading up to these private Santa sessions, which are simultaneously offered in 6 different rooms and available in multiple languages, you must first walk through an interactive winter wonderland, with an entrance concealed by a full-size polar express train. It really is a magical experience.
In 2020, Macy’s opted for digital Santa visits, and cancelled their in-store meet-and-greets due to the pandemic. As part of their announcement, they stated it was the first time in 159 years that Santa wouldn’t be appearing at Macy’s; however, there is little evidence to back up this claim. Macy's did advertise that they were "The Home of Santa Claus" in 1861 to promote their large toy selection during the holiday season, but there are no photos, drawings, or even much anecdotal proof of Santa appearing in store during this time. In fact, while other stores were regularly decorating for Christmas long before R. H. Macy’s first opened their doors in 1858, Macy’s didn’t begin their holiday window display tradition until 1874. Does it make sense that Santa would be meeting with children inside before they would even deck the halls with Christmas décor?
It also seems unlikely that Macy’s would host these Santa visits for close to 30 years before anyone tried to imitate their success. It is entirely possible that Santa did appear at Macy’s since 1861, but it also would not be the first time a major brand closely associated with the holidays embellished their history just a little. (We’re looking at you Coca-Cola)
Whether first or not, there is no denying just how important Macy’s is to the development of the Mall / Department Store Santa. But then who was first?
SANTA COMES TO BOSTON
While debate rages on, it is generally believed that Santa’s first visit to a department store was actually The Boston Store in 1890. Located in Brockton, Massachusetts, the store was owned by Scottish immigrant James Edgar, and his story is very much the epitome of the American dream. He came to America with no money or connections, but through hard work and determination, opened his very own department store. His philosophy was to treat all customers equally, despite how much money they had to spend, and he often discounted items for those in need. Colloquially known as Colonel Jim, he became famous around the city for his charity, with anonymous good deeds often being traced back to him. In other words, he sort of was Santa Claus.
James Edgar loved holidays, and not just Christmas. On Fourth of July, he would dress as George Washington and host parades and picnics in the park for all the neighborhood children. But Edgar was especially fond of all things Noel, and during the holiday season he could be found dressed as a clown, wondering the aisles of his store to give toys to kids shopping with their parents. Inspired by the holiday artwork of Thomas Nast, in 1890 he had a custom Santa suit tailored. One afternoon in early December, he walked the floor of his store in full Santa garb. One boy, Coward Pearson, was lucky enough to be in the store that day, and many years later recounted the experience to ClickAmericana:
“Back in 1890, we saw drawings of him in the newspapers and magazines. But you never thought you’d ever have a chance to see him in person, unless you sat up all night on Christmas Eve beside the fireplace at home. You just can’t imagine what it was like. My parents had taken me over to The Boston Store on Main St. I remember walking down an aisle and, all of a sudden, right in front of me I saw Santa Claus, I couldn’t believe my eyes. And then Santa came up and started talking to me. It was a dream come true.”Coward Pearson
Edgar only expected to don the suit a few hours a week, but the very next day, his store was mobbed with excited children and parents who heard that Santa was spotted at his store. By the end of the week, he had lines of people waiting around the block, some from as far as New York and Rhode Island. He immediately ordered a second suit, for another one of his employees, Jim Grant, to wear when he was unavailable. Santa became a permanent fixture at the store until December 25th, but he promised to come back the following year. And he did.
By 1891, business owners across America had heard of the crowds brought in by Santa’s appearance at the little store outside of Boston. Santa began popping up in stores nationwide, and by the turn of the century, had become a fixture of the holiday season at nearly every major department store in the country. With a far-more detailed account and throngs of copycats that followed, it is easy to see why this generally accepted as the true first department store Santa. However, there is still one vital element of a visit with Santa that is still missing.
THE FIRST PICTURES WITH SANTA
While most retail stores were content with the extra foot traffic and increased revenue brought in every December from Santa’s visits, it wasn’t until 1943 that one enterprising photographer saw an opportunity to fully monetize the experience. Frederick and Nelson, a popular department store in Seattle, hosted their Santa meet-and-greets in the window displays at the front of the store. Arthur French, a staff photographer for the Seattle Post-Intelligence, saw the crowds of people gathered, and came up with an idea.
Ironically, the generally grumpy Arthur French was nicknamed Happy by friends and co-workers, but seeing the looks on the children’s faces when they met Santa made him finally earn the nickname. He knew he wanted to capture that moment, because taking a photo with Santa was more than just a picture, it was an experience. He also knew that parents would pay handsomely for the opportunity to take these memories home with them to cherish forever, or at least store them in a shoebox in the back of the closet.
After discussing his idea with the store owners, they agreed to let him charge for photos with Santa in exchange for a percentage of the profits. Charging $1 per photo, French made $10,000 that December, which was more than he earned the entire year from the newspaper. He quit his job, and founded Arthur and Associates Photography, which is still in the Santa (and Easter Bunny) photo business today. Much like the meet-and-greets themselves, word quickly spread about the success, and there were countless imitators snapping away the following year.
With all the pieces in place for a visit with a Mall Santa, all that was needed was the mall.
THE RISE OF SHOPPING MALLS IN AMERICA
In the 1950s, a new type of retail venue was born. While arcades, galleries, bazaars, markets, and other shopping centers were already popular, the fully enclosed and climate-controlled indoor shopping mall was brand new. They differed from traditional retail locations in that they offered multiple stores under one roof, and often were anchored by one or more department stores. This new style of shopping took off immediately, and visits with Santa were a major part of them from the beginning. Just how important were the holidays for shopping malls? Southdale Shopping Center, the first enclosed shopping mall in America, had this festive jingle created in their first year of business, just to promote “Southdale’s Wonderland” and the new Christmas shopping experience.
The shopping mall was a perfect location, as the added space allowed for elaborate North Pole a and Santa’s Workshop displays, and all the stores in the mall would benefit from increased foot traffic. This was equally perfect from a business perspective. In December 2016, Business Insider spoke with a company providing Santa photography services in 400 retail locations, and reported that Santa meet-and-greets generated average revenue of more than $1 million for each location. Some shopping centers were earning as much as 30% of their yearly profits, just in the few weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. This does not even take into account the increased patronage at the stores, food court, and restaurants at each location. It is no surprise that a Santa can now be found in nearly every shopping center, casino, zoo, theme park, museum, convention center, and thousand of other locations every holiday season.
SO, WHO IS REALLY RESPONSIBLE FOR THE “MALL” SANTA?
Was it the writers in the early 1800s who helped turned Santa into a jolly holiday icon? Was it J.W. Parkinson, R.H. Macy, or Colonel Jim Edgar who may have first brought Santa into their department stores? Was it Arthur French who helped turn pictures with Santa into a very profitable business model? Or was it the owners of the early shopping malls that capitalized on more space and elaborate displays to bring in shoppers during the competitive Christmas Shopping season?
The Elf Squad likes to think that it is the children who are responsible, because it is their belief that has kept it going for all these years. As with many other holiday traditions, we may never know the true origin, but it's the enduring legacy of Christmas cheer that counts. So, the next time you are out shopping during the holiday season, check out all the beautiful decorations, take a seat on Santa’s knee, pose for a fun picture, and tell him everything you want for Christmas. For just a moment, you can be a kid again. Just believe.