20.12.11

I Meet Santa Claus

20 December 1890 - Brockton, Massachusetts

Ad for James Edgar's new 1907 store
Yesterday I visited Edgar’s Department Store here on Main Street in Brockton, Massachusetts. It is one of the first department stores in the world with electric lights and cash registers thanks to Edison’s little experiment I spoke of in my last blog.

However, what Edgar’s Department Store is most famous for is having the world’s first department store Santa Claus. The idea did not come from an accountant with a brilliant promotional idea, but almost accidentally from a man who just liked children and wanted to have some fun. And who was going to tell the chap no--after all, he owned the store.

I had hoped to corner James Edgar yesterday for an interview but the man was besieged by children. In fact, I had to wait in line with them to get a word with “Santa Claus.” I think he mostly agreed to talk to me because I addressed him as Santa Claus, so as not to destroy the illusion for the children.

Mr. Edgar had agreed to meet me at his home today. It is Sunday here in 1890. I was surprised that he looked like Santa even without the suit. No fake beard or pillow had been used. Here are some exerts of our interview.

So tell me something about yourself, Mr. Edgar. Is that a bit of a Scottish brogue I hear?

Edgar as Scottish Chieftain
Yes, I immigrated from Edinburgh back in ‘78 when I was thirty-five. Brockton was a booming town, still is. Do you know the place has doubled in the last ten years? Anyway I worked in a dry goods store, learned the ropes, then saved up enough to start my own store. I tried to make it a place that welcomed families. I started a lay-away program for struggling families and I made children welcome by handing them pennies. I even dressed up as George Washington and a sea captain.

How did you come up with the idea of dressing like Santa Claus?

Edgar as clown
Last year I dressed as a clown and walked around the store. The children loved it! Recently I saw an illustration of Santa Claus by Thomas Nast.

Ah, the one he did for “The Night Before Christmas?”

Yes, that’s the one. I thought, “Ha, Santa looks like me!” Then I thought that would even be better than a clown. The children would love it! I have never been able to understand why the great gentleman lives at the North Pole. He is so far away...only able to see the children one day a year. He should live closer to them.

Thomas Nast's Santa
I tried to find a Santa Claus suit, but couldn’t find one. So I had one special made, based on Nast’s illustration. I was surprised by the reaction. The children had smiled at me when I dressed as a clown, but when I approached them as Santa, their eyes got big. They yelled, “Look! It’s Santa Claus!”

If you couldn’t find a suit, I’m assuming they had never seen anyone dressed as Santa before.

Yes, this fellow who brings children toys every Christmas and none of them had ever got to meet him. I hadn’t considered what that must mean to a child. I just wanted to make them smile. When I took the suit off to handle business, children came in wanting to know where Santa was. I knew I was going to have to spend most of my time in the suit so I didn’t disappoint any of them. In fact, I had another suit made for my brother-in-law, so he could spell me. I try to spend as much time as I can as Santa.

Yes, I noticed the huge crowd yesterday. How many children were there?

I lost count. I like to walk around the store talking to children, but when we get a huge mob I have to sit down and have them line up to see me. I knew Brockton had grown, but I never knew there were this many children. Then parents started telling me they had come by train from Boston so their child could see Santa. Boston is twenty miles away. Some even came from Providence, and that’s more than thirty miles away! Yesterday, being the last Saturday before Christmas, was the busiest day yet!

Oh, my word! You must be exhausted!

A bit. It’s worth it though to see those excited faces. Also sales have sky-rocketed. Apparently while the youngsters are waiting to talk to Santa, parents take the opportunity to shop. Nice added bonus, eh.

So next year you’ll hire someone else to play Santa?

Heavens, no! Why should they have the fun? I love kids, and they seem to love me. More than one calls me “Uncle Jim.”

James Edgar aka Uncle Jim

Uncle Jim indeed. James Edgar will be most remembered for the children he helped. He paid the medical expenses for children from poor families and gave jobs to youths in need. And Fourth-of-July he would rent trolleys to take thousands of children out into the country and meet them dressed as an Amerind, “Big Chief”.

Soon other department stores will hear of James Edgars brilliant idea and hire their own Santa Clauses. They will become a symbol of the crass commercialism of the holidays. But the best of them, like Edgar, will do it because they love kids. If anyone personified Santa Claus, it would be James Edgar.

I can honestly say, I met Santa Claus today.



Brockton’s official website for James Edgar

The Santa Claus Hall of Fame
James Edgar was one of the first inductees.

The Santa Claus Oath
Although this was not written until 2008, James Edgar lived up to the oath.

Santa Is Real
A short video of the dedicated men who carry on James Edgar's legacy.

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