Shining a Light on the States: the world’s first department store Santa

In the first of a series of regular articles, our Arizona-based correspondent tracks down people who’ve exported their Scottish values to America…

 

In the run-up to Christmas Day 1890, a group of schoolchildren walked into a department store in the small city of Brockton, Massachusetts, and beheld what, to their young eyes, was a wondrous sight.

Standing there in one of the store aisles was the man who epitomised everything magical about that time of year – Santa Claus himself.

He was everything they had imagined – jovial, beaming, kind. He spoke to each and every one of them, he gave them presents, patted them on the head, and sent them home to tell their parents about the ‘Christmas miracle’ they had just witnessed.

Santa was ‘Big Jim’ Edgar, an expat Scot from Edinburgh and a man who loved to make the lives of others, especially children, happy. He was also an astute businessman and his store was one of the most successful in Massachusetts. To this day he is remembered fondly in the community.

James EdgarHe is also in the record books. Until he donned his Santa costume in December 1890, no department store owner in the world had given any thought to having Father Christmas waiting to welcome shoppers. Now Edgar’s legacy lives on in shopping malls, Santa’s grottos and street parades the world over.

One of the youngsters who saw Jim Edgar’s Santa that first year, Edward Pearson, later recalled the thrill he felt. “I remember my parents took me over to the Boston Store in Brockton,” he said. “And there he was, Santa in person, red costume, snowy white beard and all. I can still remember seeing Santa for the first time. I have never forgotten that experience and I was only five or six at the time.”

Another said, “I couldn’t believe my eyes…Santa came up and started talking to me. It was a dream come true.”

James Edgar – or ‘Uncle Jim’ as he was known – was a large striking man. He had what we call in Scotland ‘a bit of a girth’ and he used it to his advantage as Santa.

He left Scotland in 1878 and made a small fortune by opening what was then called a dry goods store. Edgar was, however, a genuine philanthropist, who shared his wealth among the less well-off, and the happiness of children was at the forefront of everything he did. Over the years he dressed up as a clown, an Indian chief, a sea captain, anything to bring a smile to their faces.

“I love children, and they love me,” Edgar once said. He is a wonderful example of a Scottish expatriate in the United States who left a positive mark on his adopted country. In Brockton today, the James Edgar Community Service award is given annually to a citizen who demonstrates generosity of spirit.

There have been many Scots who, like James Edgar, were not great statesman or politicians, but ‘ordinary’ people who made their country proud by their actions in America. Many more are in the United States today and we will be telling their stories in this series.

For example, in the city of Aurora, Colorado, thousands of children have passed through William Smith High School. It was named after a pioneering Scot who settled in what was then the Wild West in 1878.

Smith was a visionary who had recognised the value of a good education in Scotland. He donated land, rallied support from prominent Coloradans, and started what is now the Aurora Public Schools System.

Smith went on to serve on the school board for 50 years. In his homeland he is unknown, but in Colorado his exploits on behalf of the community are legendary.

Perhaps some of the people I speak to in this series will be remembered a century from now for the good work they are doing. At the very least, the deeds that make them ‘Positively Scottish’ deserve to be highlighted.

If you know an expat Scot in America who should be featured, please contact me at ilundy@hotmail.com

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