First in-store Father Christmas was from Edinburgh

James Edgar became the USA's first department store Santa in 1890
James Edgar became the USA's first department store Santa in 1890
Share this article
Have your say

HE WAS the young Scot who sailed to America to seek his fortune and ended up becoming the first department store Santa.

Now the memory of James Edgar is being revived in an effort to boost the fortunes of his adoptive home of Brockton, Massachusetts.

Born in Edinburgh in 1843, Edgar escaped the poverty of his childhood by moving to Brockton in 1878, where he set up a department store.

Known for his progressive ideas, the entrepreneur was the first in the city to introduce electric lights and cash registers.

Edgar was also known for his philanthropy, paying for local children’s medical care and offering jobs to young people.

A born children’s entertainer – often walking around his store dressed as a clown, a sea captain or even the first US president, George Washington – he first took to dressing as Santa in 1890, inspired by the drawings of political illustrator Thomas Nast.

Explaining his reason for donning the iconic red outfit, he once said: “I have never been able to understand why the great gentleman lives at the North Pole. He is so far away. He is only able to see the children one day a year. He should live closer to them.”

Such was the popularity of his idea that, within days, children travelled from as far as Boston and Providence, Rhode Island, to see Edgar as Santa, helping to establish a tradition that exists to this day.

In an interview in 1979, local man Edward Pearson recalled meeting Edgar as Santa. “You can’t imagine what it was like,” he said. “You had heard of Santa Claus. You had seen sketches of him in the newspapers. Then all of a sudden you entered the Boston Store over on Main Street, and there he was right in front of you. You didn’t think it could possibly happen. It was like a dream come true. You were actually talking to Santa Claus.”

Although Edgar died in 1909, residents of Brockton, which has been hit hard by the global financial downturn, are now intent on exporting his story around the world and turning their city into Christmastown.

Local businessman John Merian, president of the Downtown Brockton Association, has been instrumental in campaigning for this.

“I’ve been trying to get this story out and try to get Brockton proud of something so iconic, and this man who was so visionary,” he said.

“He took the character of Santa and brought him to life in the purest of ways, because he didn’t do it for any financial gain, he did because he loved children.”

In recognition of his ideas, Edgar is already one of the most important figures in the Santa Hall of Fame – a museum devoted to the history of Father Christmas, based at the appropriately named town Santa Claus in Indiana – where he is credited as a charter member.

Edgar’s great-grandnephew Hugh Smith, of Thornliebank, Glasgow, said that his ancestor’s story had continued down the years.

“He’s always been talked about by members of the family, almost always around Christmas time,” he said. “It’s very good to know his memory is kept alive in Brockton.”