Some might say the Lehigh Valley pioneered the idea of Christmas in America. Into the 19th century, New England tended to regard the holiday as tied to both pagan feasts and Roman Catholic rites, and banned it entirely. It was celebrated in the South, mostly with English traditions that had survived the Atlantic crossing.
But starting with the founding of Bethlehem on a Christmas Day in the 1740s, the holiday easily found a home here. Non-Moravian Germans also revered the holiday as both a religious celebration and a break from the bleak winter. Along with church services and games, other secular pastimes were popular. And of course there was the Belznickel, the figure that brought gifts like an orange to good boys and girls and a swing from his switch to those who were bad.
Yet a question remains as to how Santa Claus (the modern version, that is) arrived in the Lehigh Valley. Well, no one can say for sure, but we do know that the first one to grace a local department store was in 1905.
The creation of the modern Santa Claus, of course, goes back to Thomas Nast, a German immigrant and cartoonist who created the “jolly old elf” in the 1863 Christmas issue of Harpers Magazine. It combined generous aspects of the original St. Nicholas figure, who had been the traditional gift-giver for centuries in Europe, with generous doses of the Dutch Kris Kringle.
A brief survey of late 19th century Lehigh Valley newspapers shows that by the 1890s at the latest, Santa Claus was appearing in advertising and stories about Christmas. But apparently it was not until Christmas of 1905 that Allentown department store W.R. Lawfer & Co., located at 607-610 Hamilton St., decided to introduce a real live Santa to its holiday display.
This idea was not a new one. One source takes the idea all the way back to 1841, when Philadelphia merchant J.W. Parkinson hired a man to dress up as Kris-Kringle and stand in front of his store. How often Parkinson did this is unknown, but apparently it disappears from the historical record. According to its website, Macy’s in New York had a department store Santa as early as 1862. Some sources regard this as the actual first department store Santa.
The next attempt at a live department store Santa was supposedly in 1890. That Christmas, James Edgar, the owner of Edgar’s Department Store in Brockton, Massachusetts, dressed as Santa and drew large crowds as a result. Perhaps it was Edgar’s concept that inspired Lawfer’s to take the plunge. It also may have been the influence of Wanamaker’s Department store in Philadelphia. John W. Wanamaker and W.R. Lawfer were said to be close friends.
At least as early as 1904 the store was decorating heavily for Christmas. Lawfer’s was the first local department store to feature a separate toy department that it called “Toyland.” At the center of the toy display that Christmas was a 24-foot-tall, one ton figure it called “Santa Claus’ Father.” It is not known if this was an attempt to combine the English figure known as “Father Christmas” with Nast’s character.
On December 9, 1905 local newspapers ran the first announcement of Lawfer’s live Santa Claus. “Visit Santa Claus at his Cave in Toyland,” it read. “If you haven’t paid Santa a visit in his pretty Toyland, you had better come soon. Santa remembers every little face, you know, and he says there are some chubby little folks on his list he hasn’t seen yet. Bring your letters and put them in the letter box in his cave.”
Lawfer’s Santa Claus was apparently quite a hit with local folks. And it was not long before Hess Brothers, which had opened in 1897, was following suit. Max Hess Sr. quickly picked up the idea of a regular department story Santa. Some of the earliest pictures of him date from the early 1930s. They show a rather wispy looking figure more like England’s Father Christmas than the Thomas Nast figure.
It was in 1931, the same time in which the early picture of Hess’s Santa was taken, that Coca-Cola commissioned its artist Haddon Sundblom to create a new image to promote the soft drink. Apparently the artist decided he shared a likeness with Santa Claus because he created a figure that resembled him. This illustration of a jolly, fat-cheeked Santa dressed in a vibrant red, and always clutching a Coke bottle, became the traditional image that most have of Santa today.
By the 1950s and 1960s, Max Hess Jr., who had taken over running the family store in the 1930s, decided to make local Christmas celebrations his own. The Hess’s Santa was a must go to on just about every baby boomer’s holiday. Hess’s toy department featured not just Santa but exotic toys from around the world. Handmade and costing thousands of dollars, they were for sale, even if few brought them.
It was Christmas, 1962 that Hess’s debuted in its window a puppet show called “Pip: The Mouse That Came For Christmas.” Based on a visit of Santa to a “house mouse,” it brought lines of people to the store window where it appeared. Later it was moved inside to the store’s toy department.
Today there are no department stores in Allentown. But thanks to the Liberty Bell Shrine in Zion’s Reformed UCC Church, Pip, among the few survivors of the Hess’s era, performs every year with Santa before crowds of children and adults who keep the memory alive. Almost directly across the street is the site of Lawfer’s, where Santa made his local debut all those years ago