The festive season is upon us once more and as we emerge from another year of lockdown, so too do Santa’s representatives all across the world.

Black and white photo of Santa in a store, sitting on a chair upon a dais, surrounded by young children

Santa at McCallums Wangaratta, Victoria, 1970. Photo by Le Dawn Studios. This work is in copyright; H2006.100/1738

The origins of the department store Santa can be traced back to Massachusetts in 1890 when dry goods store owner James Edgar first donned the jolly red suit. It proved such a success that by the following year, many department stores had appearances by Santa and the tradition continues to this day 1

The first Australian department store to feature its own Santa is believed to have been Adelaide’s John Martin & Co. In 1897, and for the following decade, the role was filled by a local gentleman named William Gray 2

Black and white photo of a man dressed as Santa driving a horse drawn buggy accompanied by women and children

William Gray driving a buggy cart, ca. 1905. State Library of South Australia; SLSA [B 63558]

In Australia, department store, Myer, is known to have a long tradition of welcoming Santa to its stores for Christmas. One of the earliest newspaper articles that can be found about this, describes Santa’s cave in Myer in Bendigo in 1913:

Whilst every department in Myer’s is very appreciably affected by an extra in-rush of business at this time of the year, the very vortex of the bustle exists in the caves. It, is here that Santa Claus has his home, and what a credit to his universal discernment and tact is contained in the Aladdin-like stock with which he has surrounded himself

Bendigo Advertiser, 23 December 1913, p 7

Black and white photo a girl in a white dress sitting on Santa Claus' knee in front of a glittering backdrop

Girl sitting on Santa’s knee at Coles Bourke Street Store No. 200, 1955/1960. Photo by Coles Myer Ltd.; MS 13468

In 1964, to ensure they could continue to supply their stores with knowledgeable and authentic Santas, Myer flew in Mr. Charles W. Howard, and wife, Ruth, from the world’s first Santa School, established in New York in 1937.

Black and white photo of a man in a suit addressing a room of Santas

[Charles Howard talking to a room of Santas], ca. 1964, from Coles Myer archive, YMS13468  (Box 1403)

The school still exists today and was started by Howard due to his growing dissatisfaction with the calibre of Santas he saw around him – Santas that he claimed had “frayed suits and cheap beards, and a shockingly inadequate knowledge of reindeer” 3

The extensive Records of Coles Myer are held by the Library and contain a treasure-trove of information from this visit, including documents such as How to select and train your Santa Claus (for maximum profit and productivity). The course covers everything from the behavioural expectations and knowledge that Santa should possess, to how to apply make up and the appropriate order in which to don the parts of his suit.

Let’s take a look at some Santa do’s and don’ts as outlined by Charles Howard’s Santa training in 1964:

On reindeer:

Any Santa who can’t tell the names of his reindeer is a fake in the eyes of kids. Santa should be able to rattle these right off:
Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen, Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen. The sex of the individual reindeer is not as well known, although Vixen is a girl reindeer 4

Black and white photograph of Santa sitting at a desk in a store, under an archway, with young children and a woman gathered around

Children meeting Santa Claus in Murray’s High Street department store, Echuca, 1953. Photo by Fred Boyle; H2009.88/150

On costume:

Remembering that children often tweak the old gentleman’s whiskers and pull his hat, Santa should have a small mirror concealed in his sleeve, to be used to put him back to rights after a tussle with an adoring child 5

Black and white photo of a young boy sitting on Santa's knee

Boy sitting on “”Santa’s”” knee inside Mantons Bourke Street store, 1942/1951. Photo by Coles Myer Ltd.; MS 13468

On “silly high school girls”:

Sometimes older girls travel in packs, too. These girls are troublesome because of their giggles and irreverence, so that Santa must get rid of them quickly. “Bet you would like a boy friend,” is one opening. Then when the girls agree, ask “blonde or brunette?” “How tall?”. Wind it up by saying “Santa has quite a few orders but he’ll see what he can do. ‘Bye girls!” 6

Black and white photo of a man holding a sign, addressing a room of Santas

[Charles Howard addresses a room of Santas], ca. 1964, from Coles Myer archive, YMS 13468 (Box 1403)

On diet:

When lunch time comes be careful to select non-gassy foods which are free from after-odor. The following items are among those which are taboo – onions and garlic, strong cheese, beer and liquor, boiled cabbage, boiled or baked beans, heavy gravies 7

Black and white photo of a young boy and girl looking at a sign on Santa's chair that says "Santa has gone to lunch. Back at 1pm"

Herald, 7 December 1949, p 17


The department store Santa was perhaps most beautifully portrayed in the American film Miracle on 34th Street (1947) written and directed by George Seaton, which examined the question ‘is Santa Claus real?’ The story, originally conceived by Valentine Davies, resulted in the publication of a short novel to help cross-promote the film. Our Library holds a copy of the 1954 edition of There is a Santa Claus: miracle on 34th Street. Produced for Dymock’s, Sydney, the book features native Australian animals, festively attired on its back cover:

Front and back book cover of 'There is a Santa Claus' by Valentine Davies.

Front and back cover of Dymock’s 1953 edition of There is a Santa Claus: miracle on 34th Street by Valentine Davies


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References

  1. New England Today, 2020, Where was the first department store Santa Claus?, viewed 3 December 2021, <https://newengland.com/today/living/new-england-history/first-department-store-santa-claus/>
  2. Santa Claus Hall, 2021, William Gray – International Santa Claus Hall of Fame, viewed 3 December 2021, <https://www.santaclaushall.com/2011-inductees-2/william-gray/>
  3. Santa Claus School, 2021, Charles W Howard Santa Claus School, viewed 3 December 2021, <https://www.santaclausschool.com/about>
  4. [Santa course outline], ca. 1964, from Coles Myer archive, YMS 13468 (Box 1402)
  5. As above
  6. As above
  7. As above

This article has 1 comment

  1. Loved this post. Some of the children in the pics look a little dubious of the whole Santa experience LOL

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