Alex Palmer: How a New Yorker Invented Christmas

Last week, in advance of Chanukah, we published a review of Jewish New York, the new digest from NYU Press based on their acclaimed multi-volume series, City of Promises: A History of the Jews of New York.

Today, just a few days before Christmas, we hear from journalist and writer Alex Palmer about how an early twentieth century New Yorker (his great grand-uncle) invented the popular, contemporary American fixtures of the Christian holiday. Gotham 's interview with the bestselling author of The Santa Claus Man follows.

Gotham : Santa Claus is a major fixture of the holiday season today, but this wasn’t always the case. When does that start?

Alex Palmer: Santa Claus as we know him today was really invented in the nineteenth century — and in New York City, actually — with the first known depiction of St. Nicholas in the U.S. (commissioned by John Pintard at an 1810 New-York Historical Society dinner) and the first mention of him flying over rooftops (in Washington Irving’s satirical A History of New-York) to the jolly, sleigh-driving figure in Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” which set the template for the character for decades to come.

But through the first decades of the nineteenth century, Santa was not the central focus of Christmas like today. He was more of a supporting character. The holiday was really focused on the home, on feasting and spending time with your family — not shopping and toys and Santa. It was really the illustrator Thomas Nast, drawing cheery holiday tableaus of Santa for Harper’s Weekly, who popularized the modern figure — giving him the long white whiskers, a workshop filled with elves, and developing him from the elfin merchant in Moore’s poem into a full-grown (and extra round) man. Nast did these illustrations every year for decades during the second half of the nineteenth century, spreading and solidifying this version of the character. The modern Santa Claus is often misattributed to Coca-Cola advertisements, but it was really a German immigrant who grew up on the Lower East Side who established the character.

Gotham : And then you say another major figure responsible for giving Santa his current-day status is John Duval Gluck Jr., your great grand-uncle. Tell us about him.

Palmer: Sure. Gluck was the grandson of German immigrants himself, a nobody when he came upon his big idea (the Santa Claus Association). He was a customs broker who grew up in Bed Stuy, in Brooklyn. He always had a lively imagination and knack for storytelling, which made him a bit bored with the line of work he was in at the time. He had dabbled in publicity work with mixed-to-disastrous results, but when he learned in 1912 that the Post Office had changed its rules, allowing approved charity groups to answer letters that kids sent to Santa, he spotted an opportunity.

Gluck lobbied the New York Postmaster to release Santa’s mail entirely to him, presenting himself as a problem-solver who would apply his business skills to the effort of playing the North Pole saint. He promised to pull together volunteers and use his business connections to create an innovative approach to answering Santa’s mail. It would give individual New Yorkers the option to answer the individual Santa letters — in some cases bringing the very gifts the child asked for directly to their home. The postmaster was swayed by Gluck’s pitch and gave him the letters, sparking what would grow into a citywide phenomenon.

They matched tens of thousands of letters from needy kids with generous New Yorkers eager to give. After the association’s first year, Gluck’s creative idea, and his genius for selling it, led the New York Times to declare that he had “Played Santa Claus and Solved an Economic Problem.” For the next fifteen years, Gluck and his association had sole authority to answer Santa’s mail. The Santa Claus Association soon became a holiday institution in the city, garnering the endorsements of the biggest names of the era and moving from the back of a steakhouse to the 30th floor of the brand-new Woolworth Building.

Over the decade and a half that it operated, the Santa Claus Association not only answered a quarter-million children’s wishes, but helped Santa and the celebration of Christmas in general “go public.” In the 1910s and '20s, Christmas shifted into the huge public event we recognize today, covered breathlessly by mass media in the new consumer economy and promoted by department stores and shop windows at a level the country had never seen. This was when NYC erected the first citywide Christmas tree — a practice which exploded throughout the country the next year — when the new “parcel post” allowed Christmas gifts to be delivered at far cheaper rates than they had been before, and when Macy’s introduced its holiday parade. Christmas fully moved from a holiday celebrated inside one’s home to one celebrated in the public square. Gluck’s association drove this forward, turning letters that would previously have been read and answered by the children’s parents into public documents reprinted in newspapers and responded to by anyone interested in doing so. Gluck's association brought the holiday to scale.

Gotham : So it's a modern business phenomenon, but also a philanthropic and cultural venture?

Palmer: Yes. Gluck saw his work in larger terms than simply helping out the local needy. As he told one reporter the year he launched the Association: “There’s no charity about it. We are purveyors of Christmas spirit!” In answering the letters, the group’s goal was to ensure that the children’s belief in Santa. Before the Santa Claus Association, kids’ letters to St. Nick would go to the Post Office’s "Dead Letter Office," where they would promptly be destroyed. After the group launched, that stopped forever; even after his organization closed. Gluck extended this effort as the U.S. entered the First World War, launching a call for a Christmas Day truce, and hosting ever-more elaborate events to help promote the group, and the spirit of Christmas.

Gotham : And this is a volunteer group?

Palmer: Mostly. Basically, every year the Association would receive thousands of letters written to Santa, and then mail them out to New Yorkers. Those who felt generous would seek out a gift to send along to the letter-writer, sometimes adding a note from Santa or hand-delivering it to the address as his envoy. The public was invited to stop by the Association’s offices, where volunteers, high society ladies and men of industry would track the letters through a rigorous process, noting which had been received, what had been requested and to which a response had been sent.

Gotham : And what kind of things are these kids asking for?

Palmer: Dolls, sleds, candy, school supplies, and ice skates were some of the most popular requests. More optimistic or greedy kids asked for musical instruments or electric railway sets. But plenty asked for basic necessities — soap, food, clothing, a few even asked for coal. Apparently they were too cold to worry about that being a gift for naughty kids. Some wrote requests on behalf of family members or friends. One Brooklyn boy asked “For my white mice a piece of cheese.” One girl asked for a suit for her dad, saying “Father works at a restaurant all night and must wear a dress suit, and will give you a cup of coffee if you ask him when you are cold.” A number of parents sent their own heartbreaking requests, asking Santa to help their family because they had fallen ill or because the breadwinner had lost their job or died. The Association sent Boy Scouts to the homes to ensure they in fact needed what they requested.

There were a few quirky requests as well. One Upper West Side boy asked for his own shoe store with “a real man making shoes.” Another requested a new glass eye.

Gotham : And very quickly, by the early 1920s, the Association is being feted by all the newspapers and the group counts major public figures and celebrities among its members, right?

Palmer: Yes. Some of the biggest celebrities and politicians of the day helped promote the group. John Barrymore performed a benefit play with proceeds funding the association’s postage. Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks launched its 1922 season by sending a telegraph out to its chapters around the country. President Calvin Coolidge wished “the children of the United States a Very Merry Christmas” through the Association. The mayor, Jimmy Walker, gives them the key to the city.

Everyone wanted to get in on it. It was a lot of fun and made everyone look great. The Association provided an easy way for public figures to do visible charitable work, and with a sense of humor, imagination and holiday spirit. Silent film star King Baggot donned a Santa outfit to pick up letters for the group. Famed boxer Jack Dempsey pretended to box a bull at an SCA fundraiser. They are clearly having a blast doing it, and whether they were politicians, actors, or business leaders it was a good for these celebrities to be helping out Santa — and Gluck made sure they got great headlines.

Like the many donors who volunteered to send presents, these celebrities no doubt also found the idea behind the Association irresistible. Donating money to a vaguely noble cause was one thing. Being able to point to exactly where your money and gifts were going — the specific child whose Christmas Day would be brightened — that was a much more pleasing concept. And made for a better story.

Gotham : And Gluck had other big ideas, right, like a building honoring Santa Claus?

Palmer: Yeah. The SCA worked out of some landmark New York buildings over the years, including the Woolworth, the Knickerbocker, and the Hotel Astor. But in 1915, Gluck said "the peculiar nature of our work calls for a building of our own,” a Beaux Arts tower in the center of Manhattan that would not just house the association serve as an international monument to the Christmas spirit.

Plans outlined to journalists said it would measure 75 feet wide on a plot 100 feet wide, with an exterior of white marble, an arched portal almost 20 feet deep at the front, and a huge Christmas tree in the center, encircled by two sets of stairs. Artists from a wide range of countries would carve depictions of Santa Claus from each of their countries — with the words "Santa Claus Association” engraved above the images. But the most impressive element had to be the massive stained-glass window, measuring 35 feet wide by 50 feet tall, of Santa himself, dressed in traditional red and white, straight out of a Nast illustration.

Housing the Association was just part of the intention. They would be housed on the first floor with other child-focused charities. The plans included a “Lilliputian Bazaar” where toy manufacturers from all over the world could show off their wares, a library of children's books, and an auditorium where children's plays would be performed year-round and lectures about education and childhood development would be given. It would be charity-focused, but extravagant.

Sadly, despite a ton of promotion and fundraising efforts, and the recruitment of two famed architects, George and Edward Blum, it never came to be.

Gotham : But it turned out this group dedicating to inflating and preserving a generally wholesome myth was susceptible to less-than-pure motives, too. Is that why so few New Yorkers remember it today? The SCA seems to have fallen apart nearly as quickly as it grew. How did that happen?

Palmer: The failure of the Santa Claus Building was actually the beginning of the end. When Gluck started the Association, he stressed that it was to be an all-volunteer “clearinghouse” that paired kids in need with generous donors. It was to accept no donations and require no overhead. But pretty soon he started bending the rules — asking for money to help pay for postage, then office supplies, and eventually salaries of staffers, including himself. Soon he was publishing a “Santa Claus Annual” in which everyone from Chrysler to FAO Swartz to Ex-Lax bought ads and “Santa Claus Seals” to put on the gifts, with the funds going to the organization. The Santa Claus Building was estimated to cost $300,000, with most of it coming from donations. Just a few years in, Gluck had drifted far from the group’s original mission.

This caught the attention of New York City’s new Public Welfare Commissioner — a tough, exacting former city comptroller who cared more about how exactly charity dollars were spent than about uplifting Christmas stories. A bit of digging into Gluck’s past uncovers a number of other fraudulent charity efforts he initiated; blackmail schemes, and even accusations of spying for the Germans during World War I. You’ll have to read the book to find out what happens next, but the sudden scrutiny does Gluck in. By 1928, the Santa Claus Association is forced to give up its mission and the kids’ letters return to the Post Office.

Gotham : Yes, well, it's a fun and titillating read, to be sure. What did you find most interesting about the research?

Palmer: Gluck was my great grand-uncle, so this project gave me a chance to research my own family. I met a distant cousin I never knew I had, who shared memories of “Uncle John” and his larger-than-life personality and hard-to-believe stories. Another distant relative helped me uncover John’s old scrapbooks and collections of Santa letters, stored in a Georgia garage. Learning about John and the rest of my family was endlessly fascinating.

But at the same time I learned the surprising history of Santa Claus himself, and how the character we know today was really invented in New York City, by a handful of imaginative men with much in common with Gluck. Digging into this past — the familiar traditions, from Santa’s sleigh to Christmas tree farms to writing letters to Santa — was almost as much fun as exploring my own family's hidden story.

Alex Palmer is a journalist and the author of five books of nonfiction, including The Santa Claus Man, a New York Times bestseller. He covers travel, culture and history. His work has appeared in Esquire, Smithsonian, Slate, Mental Floss, Vulture, and Vice. You can learn more about The Santa Claus Man: The Rise and Fall of a Jazz Age Con Man and the Invention of Christmas in New York, here.