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22 December 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 11:14am

From the NS archive: The real Father Christmas

23 December 1950: Department store Santas – mere entertainment or commercial ramp?

By Mervyn Jones

The former NS assistant editor Mervyn Jones tried hard to find out when Father Christmas first appeared in department stores as an attraction for children. “As long as I’ve been here,” was always the answer. In this festive 1950 piece, Jones spoke to the men underneath the red coats and white beards and found they were hairdressers, cleaners and former policemen. One ended up being more of an attraction for the mothers than for their children – “One woman’s come back five times” – and some were made to follow strict scripts, while others strolled around toy departments approaching children more informally. For all, the timeless moral lesson remained: a child must be “good, obedient and kind” for Father Christmas to come down the chimney with presents come 25 December.

***

O­n 1 November, with a tinkle of reindeer bells, the sleighs came whirling down the escalators from the top floor (Staff Only); and, since then, perhaps a million children have visited the toy departments of the big London stores and filed, marvelling, critical, or dubious, past a figure in red cloak and white beard. They have met Father Christmas.

Mere entertainment? Commercial ramp? Both; but also, and perhaps primarily, a means for the mass propagation of the Christmas ethic: I have tried hard to find out when Father Christmas was first brought into the shops, but the answer is always “As long as I’ve been here” – in one case, 41 years. Anyway, it seems safe to assume the business is of Victorian origin. It retains the uniquely Victorian fusion of sensible investment, formalised merrymaking, and moral lesson. The true Father Christmas suggests all three as he mouths yet again; “… see you at midnight on Christmas Eve”. There is a fat fruity flavour to his tone: what fun it all is! There is an underlying solemnity: remember that fun is to be enjoyed only when earned. There is an overtone just caught by the listening parent; you and I know that this is no airy-fairy philanthropy, but solid good business.

In some stores Father Christmas has a pretty free hand, but in others he has a set formula to pronounce. In one typical case, each child must be enjoined to be “good, obedient, and kind”. As a consequence, he will get the present he wants – though a wink reassures the parent that the figure in the Savings book will be the index of goodness, obedience, and kindness. “Of course,” Father Christmas confides later, “I haven’t got time for that stuff in the peak hours. Pat them on the cheek and hope for the best, that’s all there’s time for.”

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[see also: From the NS archive: Christmas, a feast not of reason but of faith]

Selfridge’s, in case you wondered, gets all the letters posted by children to Father Christmas at the North Pole, Reindeer Land, and other “unlisted addresses”. And each child gets a reply, tastefully got up in red and green and signed in Santa’s generously sprawling fist. The reply shows Father Christmas at his most Victorian – wholesome entertainer, parson, and profit-and-loss accountant in one. “You seem to have a rather good record,” he tells the child guardedly. He adds an invitation to Toy Town with its “many wonderful toys”. Then he ends with exhortation and promised reward: “Always be good, kind, and obedient, and I will do my best to make this the happiest Christmas you have ever spent.”

To reinforce the appeal, Selfridge’s last year added a new figure, Uncle Holly. Plump, clean-shaven, Pickwickian in costume and manner, he is Father Christmas’s herald and assistant. He reaches Toy Town in mid-October and warms up the atmosphere for a fortnight. Once his chief is on the scene, his role is defined thus: “If the children are good, obedient, and kind, Uncle Holly will persuade Father Christmas to be kind to them.” The intercession at the throne refines the mystery.

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But a competing store has adopted just the opposite approach. Here, Father Christmas is all informality: he has neither platform nor pedestal, but strolls casually about the toy department, often accosting children instead of majestically awaiting their approach. There is no insistence on the high moral tone. Father Christmas asks each child his name (the personal touch); promises to drop in by chimney between 11 and 12 on Christmas Eve – but, in response to parental complaints, “only if you are asleep”; and wishes him a happy Christmas. If they’re happy, this modern patriarch assumes, they will be good.

Visiting a third department store, I found the approach yet more up to date. This Father Christmas remains seated and takes the child affectionately on his knee. So charming is this old gentleman’s manner that it invites the confidence, to say no more, of mother as well as youngster. “One woman’s come back five times,” Father Christmas told me. “Don’t know what she’s after, I’m sure. The kid’s bored by now.” Whatever she was after, many mothers apparently lay in the fur-trimmed, capacious lap the problems which, for ten months of the year, go to the Child Welfare Clinic. “Won’t eat prunes,” the harassed mother breathes into the bewhiskered ear; or “Chucks all his food on the floor and thinks it’s funny”; or even “Didn’t he ought to be dry at three?” And Santa begins chidingly, “I see when I look down your chimney…” A few questions, an admonition, a jovial expression of confidence that “you won’t let me down…” and it works. “One little boy had to be brought back twice,” Santa recalls. “Nail-biting, it was. But he’s stopped it now all right.” In this shop, Father Christmas’s rather dimly lit corner has the same air – half confessional, half bank manager’s office – as the psychiatrist’s room in American films.

Who – an illusion shed – is Father Christmas? Often he is an employee of the store. The management asks for volunteers, offers a high wage to counter the expectation of ridicule, and makes its choice. In one case, the roster of three incarnations (“so that the last child of the day gets the same greeting as the first”) includes a hairdresser, a foreman cleaner, and an adjustment clerk. At another store the job always goes to the Security Officer – an ex-policeman of reassuring voice and soldierly figure. Some shops advertise in The Stage, and I met one film extra in bears and robes; but actors come up against an old prejudice – they are suspected of slipping out for a pint in the lunch hour, and “children notice that sort of thing”. Other Fathers simply answered advertisements in the daily press. One is normally a hotel receptionist – a perfect background, one would think. He fell and hurt his leg some months ago, so he was happy to be the Father Christmas who sits and takes children on his knee (the undamaged one).

[see also: From the NS archive: Beer, inglorious beer]

Often, nowadays, Father Christmas is surrounded by other attractions. He may point the way to the Trip to Atlantis, or be housed in the Enchanted Castle, whose portals are watched, to provide something for all tastes, by girls in Forever Amber costumes. There is a shilling charge for admission, but adults enter free and children get a gift for the shilling, so all are happy and entertainment tax is avoided. Other stores charge nothing and provide no gift, finding that at current prices no child can be made happy at less than half a crown. One shop does give away balloons, but only to the early arrivals. In peak hours, the crush is so great that balloons, bursting at machine gun speed, would cause a panic.

Do children still believe in Father Christmas? At one store I was told cautiously: “They think there is a real Father Christmas somewhere but these men in the shops just stand for him.” Does the wish – or need – to believe in this ideal Father Christmas suffer any hurt from too close contact with these Real Father Christmases? Let psychologists, philosophers – and even parents – supply the answer.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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