The First Shop Floor Santa was Scottish

The American tradition of Shop Floor Santas all began with a humble Scot known fondly as ‘Big Jim’ or ‘Uncle Jim’ to the children. He was a kind a generous man who used to stand on the top of his store and scatter pennies for the children on the 4th of July.   He was a tall, well-rounded person with a ruddy complexion and a loud and hearty laugh.

James Edgar emigrated from Edinburgh in 1878 when he was thirty-five, hoping to find work in America.  He went on to own department store in Brockton, Massachusetts, but his real legacy is he was to inspire a tradition that has defined Christmas for millions of children.

Research by an amateur genealogist has revealed the story of James Edgar.

James Edgar

James Edgar

His story was rediscovered by distant relative Hugh Smith, 69, from Thornliebank, Glasgow, when he began looking through family archives and found research from his uncle, James Edgar Grant Lockhart, a keen family historian.

Mr Smith said: “My late uncle was a great one for the family tree. I was clearing out a cupboard when I found his research, which told the tale of James Edgar, my grandmother’s cousin. It’s great to think that the first Santa in the biggest nation in the world was Scottish.”

As well the family tree, Mr Smith found an article from a defunct magazine called Modern Maturity, which featured an interview with James Edgar, a “roly-poly” man who left his home in Berwickshire to search for a better life in America.

He founded Edgar’s Department Store in 1878 and would stand on its the roof every Saturday morning to scatter pennies for local children. He would even offer impoverished youngsters jobs at his department store, even if he had no need for new employees.

james

“My life in Scotland was a poor one,” Mr Edgar once said. “When I came to this country I had to scratch to get by. I never really had a childhood because I was out working. I think that’s why I enjoy children so much. I was trying to make up for the childhood I never had.”

One Christmas he hit upon the idea of dressing up as a clown to walk around his store and choose a girl with the prettiest bow in her hair to win a doll.

How James used to dress - quite different to the santa we know these days

One of James’ Costumes

James was known for dressing up and walking around the store.  One of his favourites was to dress in full Scottish regalia.

As a Scottish Chieftain

As a Scottish Chieftain

 

He then decided to dress as Father Christmas, adopting the familiar white beard and a red Santa suit that he based on famous 1863 illustrations by Thomas Nast, a celebrated cartoonist who invented the modern image of Father Christmas.

Thomas Nast's Santa

Thomas Nast’s Santa

In an interview James answered the question ‘How did you come up with the idea of dressing like Santa Claus?’:

“Last year I dressed as a clown and walked around the store. The children loved it! Recently I saw an illustration of Santa Claus by Thomas Nast.

Ah, the one he did for “The Night Before Christmas?”

Yes, that’s the one. I thought, “Ha, Santa looks like me!” Then I thought that would even be better than a clown. The children would love it! I have never been able to understand why the great gentleman lives at the North Pole. He is so far away…only able to see the children one day a year. He should live closer to them.

I tried to find a Santa Claus suit, but couldn’t find one. So I had one special made, based on Nast’s illustration. I was surprised by the reaction. The children had smiled at me when I dressed as a clown, but when I approached them as Santa, their eyes got big. They yelled, “Look! It’s Santa Claus!””

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Edward Pearson, who remembered meeting Edgar as Santa, was interviewed in the Modern Maturity article. He said: “Nowadays Santa Claus is everywhere, but back in 1890 we had only seen him in newspapers or magazines. We never thought we would have a chance to meet him unless we sat up all night on Christmas Eve.”

After his first appearance, word soon spread that Santa was appearing in person and families flocked to see him. Demand grew to such an extent that another Father Christmas had to be hired as children began coming from as far away as New York to meet the hirsute Christmas hero. The following year, hundreds of stores across America copied his example and installed their own Santa.

Although the fact Edgar invented a fundamental Christmas tradition is often forgotten, he managed to achieve one wish.

“I have never understood why Santa lived at the North Pole,” Edgar added. “He is so far away and only able to visit children once a year. He should live closer to them.”

Now, when every child who chooses to can meet Father Christmas, the Scottish Santa’s ambition has been realised.

Located across the street from the original Edgar's Department Store on the City of Brockton's Adams Parking Garage is a bronze plaque to honor James Edgar, the first Department Store Santa.

Located across the street from the original Edgar’s Department Store on the City of Brockton’s Adams Parking Garage is a bronze plaque to honor James Edgar, the first Department Store Santa.

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About Amanda Moffet

I run www.scotclans.com with Rodger Moffet. Live in Edinburgh and love travelling around Scotland gathering stories.

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