A simple question from my editor, the Genealogy Insider Diane Haddad, has me scrambling for the answer. She asked, “What’s the history of having your picture taken with Santa?” Whoa! These iconic kid pictures are in a lot of family albums, and judging from the lines at mall Santas, having a photo with this Christmas symbol remains popular.
But when did the first kid have a picture taken with Santa? It’s a good question.
Out on a gift-buying journey I found a cute little book, A Century of Christmas Memories, 1900-1999 by the editors of the Peter Pauper Press (Peter Pauper Press). In it is a picture of baseball great Babe Ruth playing Santa at a benefit in December 1947.
The photo featured above was taken in 1942 at Macy’s Department Store in New York, and now is in the collection of the Library of Congress. Accompanying information mentions there were two Santas, concealed from one another, so that the children wouldn’t be upset. Each child got to talk with Santa and received a piece of candy.
The tradition must be older than that. I turned to Google for help. A quick search turned up a site that mentioned that the first department store Santa was a R.H. Macy’s in New York in 1870, but it didn’t mention photographs.
On the History Channel website, there’s a history of many things relating to Christmas—including a short article on mall Santas. According to that piece, in 1841, a Philadelphia store featured a life-size Santa model.
I thought a newspaper search might help. I didn’t find exactly what I was looking for, but I did locate an obituary for Charles W. Howard, who was considered the “Nation’s No. 1 Santa Claus.” According to the obituary in the May 2, 1966, New York Times, Howard began his career as Santa when just a child, and then in 1937, he opened a school for Santas. He taught “psychology, costuming, makeup, whisker grooming, voice-modulation and ho-ho-ho-ing.”
Howard said “You’ve got to know the character you’re playing. It’s so real to me sometimes that I can feel the reindeer breathing on my cheek.”
While I don’t have a definitive answer yet on Diane’s question, I’m still working on it. I have some leads, but need to contact some folks in the know. They haven’t returned my calls in this busy season….they must be out shopping.