Gather ’round children: This is the story of how Jolly Old St. Nick invaded department stores across the country.
Generations of children across the United States have been terrorized by the mall Santa—forced to sit on the lap of a stranger while dressed in their itchiest holiday best as a photographer dressed in a lurid green elf costume demands a smile.
While there must be some children somewhere who enjoy this annual process, the vast majority of Santa photo opps come out looking like a low-stakes hostage situation, at best.
So, how exactly did this harrowing rite of passage begin? It’s a tale of Christian charity, marketing ingenuity, and good old mercenary capitalism.
Image via Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock.
Santa’s Anti-Capitalist Origins
Santa Claus as Americans know him—corpulent, jolly, dressed in a bright red and white suit—didn’t appear till the late 19th century, but his first precursor is nearly 2,000 years old.
Representations of Saint Nicholas. Images via Marian C and Zvonimir Atletic.
St. Nicholas was an early Christian bishop who lived in what is now Turkey from 270 to 343. Known as Nicholas the Wonderworker, he became famous for his gifts to the poor.
In one popular story, he secretly provided dowries for three young women who would likely have had to become prostitutes after their father lost all their money.
Throughout the Middle Ages, children received gifts in his honor the night before his December 6 feast day. Nicholas’s method of redistributing wealth to those most in need made him so popular that he remained a beloved figure even after the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s, which discouraged the veneration of saints.
Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker. Images via Zvonimir Atletic and Gouache7.
As the decades passed, St. Nicholas evolved into various figures including Father Christmas in England, Père Noël in France, and Sinterklaas in the Netherlands. This last one is the character that made it to America, thanks to Dutch immigrants living in New York City in the 1700s.
Father Christmas is crowned with holly by a little girl, circa 1897. Image via Historia/Shutterstock.
In 1773, a local newspaper—using the Anglicized “Santa Claus” for the first time—reported that “a great number of sons of the ancient saint . . . celebrated the day with great joy and festivity.”
Santa Starts to Sell
Almost as soon as he arrived in America, Santa’s days as a normal, charitable guy were numbered. Stores began advertising the concept of “Christmas shopping” as early as 1820. And, within twenty years, the jolly old elf’s image started popping up in print ads for various businesses’ holiday deals.
Old fashion Christmas print ads. Images via Historia/Shutterstock, Historia/Shutterstock, Historia/Shutterstock, and Historia/Shutterstock.
This is also the period when Santa started putting on weight. In his now-iconic 1823 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (a.k.a. “Twas the Night Before Christmas”), Clement C. Moore described the titular gift giver as having “a little round belly that shook when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.”
Several decades later, the Salvation Army got in the Santa game, too, when they needed help paying for the Christmas meals they were handing out to families in need. Starting in the 1890s, the group hired unemployed men to dress up in Santa suits and solicit donations from holiday shoppers.
Santa Goes Shopping
After Santa took off as a de facto Christmas mascot, it didn’t take long for store owners to realize that they could capitalize off more than just his image. Why stop at a life-size Santa Claus in a window when you could hire an actual live Santa to greet shoppers?
There’s some debate about which enterprising business owner first decided to don a Santa suit, but James Edgar is now generally acknowledged as one of the first department store Santas.
Edgar, known to his friends as Colonel Jim, owned a dry goods store in Brockton, Massachusetts, and in 1890, he traveled to nearby Boston to have a Santa suit tailored to fit him. He brought it back to Brockton, wore it to greet his customers (and, more importantly, their children), and the rest is history.
Some kids love Mall Santa . . . some do not. Images via Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock and Martha Holmes/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock.
Macy’s, founded in 1858, also claims to have hosted its first Santa in 1861, though few details about this early appearance remain. The following year, famous illustrator Thomas Nast drew Santa Claus for the first time for one of his Harper’s Weekly covers.
Published in the January 3, 1863 issue, the image showed Santa dressed in an American flag–inspired suit visiting Union soldiers on Christmas Eve.
The Rise of Santa Photos
Whether invented by Macy’s, Colonel Jim, or someone else, live Santas were solidly a thing by the turn of the 20th century. But, the trend of having your photo taken with Old St. Nick didn’t take off for another few decades.
There’s again some debate about who started this racket, but Washington state’s Arthur “Happy” French is widely credited as one of the first innovators in this area.
As the story goes, French was sitting in his office at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer one December day in 1943 when he noticed the long line of children waiting to meet Santa Claus at the nearby Frederick & Nelson department store.
Macy’s helped put Mall Santas on the map. Images via Bernard Hoffman/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock and Nina Leen/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock.
The following year, French took a leave from the newspaper and set up shop at the store, snapping candid photos of children sitting in Santa’s lap and selling them to parents who wanted a souvenir of the occasion. The operation was so successful that he did it again in 1945, making $10,000—more than three times his annual newspaper salary—that December.
In 1946, he quit the paper altogether and made Santa photos, and later Easter Bunny photos, his full-time job.
Santa, in general, also became more popular during this period thanks to several factors. Coca-Cola debuted its first Santa ad in 1931. And, while the company didn’t invent him, they did help standardize his appearance as the red-cheeked, red-suited fellow we still know today.
Coca-Cola’s depiction of Santa in 1931 standardized the jolly man’s image. Image via Shutterstock.
In 1947, Miracle on 34th Street premiered, cementing the department store Santa in pop culture lore and inspiring children everywhere to believe that their Santa might actually be the real one.
Santas in cinema. Images via Kobal/Shutterstock and 20th Century Fox/Kobal/Shutterstock.
Macy’s, too, was largely responsible for sending Santa to the A-list, having him close out the inaugural Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1924. The parade has ended with a Santa grand finale every year since, marking the official start of the holiday season (and reminding parents that their kids can visit Santa in a local Macy’s).
Modern Mall Santas
While many shopping malls and department stores have fallen victim to the comparative ease of online retail over the past twenty years or so, Mall Santas, shockingly, have not.
Mall Santas are in it to win it—pandemic or not. Images via John Riley/EPA/Shutterstock, Ralph Morse/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock, Ahmad Yusni/EPA/Shutterstock, and Peter Stackpole/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock.
The only major disruption to the Santa photo industry came in 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic forced many stores to scrap their in-person Santa attractions.
Even Macy’s canceled their iconic Santa visits (which, in New York City, requires a reservation) for the first time in the store’s history.
The pandemic stole a year from Mall Santa, but they’re back! Images via Dmitri Lovetsky/AP/Shutterstock and Ray Tang/Shutterstock.
But Santa, magical being that he is, adapted to the times. Some stores, like Macy’s, offered virtual visits where children could interact with Santa via video link, while others stationed Santa behind plexiglass or inside a giant snow globe.
Mall Santas entertaining the kids. Images via ROLEX DELA PENA/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock and ABIR SULTAN/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock.
Truly enterprising retailers even offered Santa hats customized with face shields. By 2021, however, things were more or less back to “normal.” If a child is willing to sit on Santa’s lap, then he’ll be there waiting on his department store throne.
Image via Denis Farrell/AP/Shutterstock.
Cover image via Historia/Shutterstock.
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