Throughout the 19th century Santa developed from the Dutch tradition of a “jolly old elf” to the robust, bearded man described by political cartoonist Thomas Nast. And, it was Nast who portrayed him as living at the North Pole where he kept an eye on children around the globe with a giant telescope.
Another feature of that century was the notion that Santa Claus did not leave the North Pole until Christmas Eve when it was time to deliver all those presents. This was immortalized in the 1823 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” — better known today as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” In 1836, Alabama was the first state in the union to establish Christmas as a legal holiday.
As the 19th century drew to a close, the Christmas shopping season had become an all-important economic engine for merchants throughout the country. Not surprisingly then, Santa Claus started appearing long before Christmas Eve to get the season rolling and cash registers clanging sooner.
In 1920, the first Thanksgiving Day parade to feature Santa Claus was held in Philadelphia and sponsored by Gimbel’s. That department store’s rival, Macy’s, highlighted Santa in their New York parade four years later. Giant balloons joined Santa in 1927.
Mobile merchants also started parading Santa Claus in the 1920s, with the Reiss Mercantile Company leading the way. That firm, which opened in 1902, advertised “dry goods, notions, millinery, gentlemen’s furnishings, laces, and window shades.” By the late teens their ads also advised that they were “the only wholesale toy house in Mobile.” The Reiss firm began the parade, which featured Santa Claus as well as a number of toys available at their shop.
After World War II, Santa’s parade into Mobile grew to record proportions. In 1948, there were nine bands and 11 floats, including a snow-covered platform, bringing up the rear, with Santa, his sleigh and reindeer. He was greeted by the mayor who gave him the keys to all the city’s chimneys and invited him to throw the switch to turn on the holiday lights lining the streets. A newspaper account explained that after the parade St. Nick left for the North Pole.
While each New York department store boasted its own Santa to hear children’s wishes, Mobile had just one. In the 1950s he set up his “headquarters” in Bienville Square where he visited with children from “11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.” Perhaps, the two-hour lunch break allowed him to check on his elves’ progress.
St. Nick Moves West
As the malls developed and slowly but surely drew downtown businesses west, Santa disappeared from the Square. Bel Air Mall arranged for him to descend from a helicopter one year, while in 1965 Springdale Plaza announced that he had joined the space age. No more sleigh and reindeer for Santa. He would be there with his “Super Rocket.”
From Nov. 10 through 13 that year, youngsters were invited to visit Springdale where they could “ride with Santa Claus on his big Super Rocket, ” which turned out to be an old city bus outfitted to look somewhat like a spaceship. After children boarded, Christmas lights blinked and carols blared over a loudspeaker while the vehicle drove around in big circles in the ample parking lot.
In recent years, Santa Claus has rediscovered downtown Mobile where he once again parades with school bands and floats. He has been invited back to light the trees in Bienville Square, which sparkle the whole holiday long. His Super Rocket has not had the same luck. It languishes in a Midwestern junkyard. Rudolph must surely be smiling.