After last week’s slightly political piece, this week we’re launching into proper festive content. Again we’re turning our attention to Picture Post, the weekly photojournalism magazine launched in October 1938. In it’s first December, Picture Post ran an article on the ‘Father Christmases of London.’ The reportage gives an insight in this enduring seasonal job and the backgrounds of the men who took it on.
The piece appeared in the Picture Post of 17 December 1938 and ran across four pages. It is an article of two parts; the bottom third of the pages is taken up by an article setting out the cultural and historical background of Santa Claus in detail. It recalls the original Catholic Saint Nicholas, and how the worship of this saint diverged across different countries over time. It notes that ‘Protestantism has rooted out St. Nicholas Day from the English ecclesiastical calendar’ but that Santa Claus got imported back from the US after the tradition was started there by Dutch settlers. The article even covers localised European customs such as the Krampus, the origin of Christmas trees and of Santa Claus’s traditional dress.
Alongside this thorough exploration of the origins of Santa Claus, Picture Post presents portraits of ten men who are playing Santa across various department stores in London in the winter of 1938. Each man is shown both in their Santa outfit, and as their ‘normal selves’. The article shows how important and well-known the tradition of live Santa’s was to London’s luxury shopping market.
The background of these men puts them in one of two camps: half of them work or have worked in the department stores in which they act as Santa; the other half are actors, models or other types of entertainers. In the case of the first group, playing Santa appears to be a nice break from their day job for the month of December, after which they move back to their regular duties in January. George Dixon, for example, ordinarily worked in the wallpaper department at Barker’s, a large department store in Kensington. He had acted as the store’s Santa every year since his appointment as salesperson. It is likely Dixon was chosen for the role because he had a background as an actor in travelling troops.
Henry Tapsell, who acted as Santa in the Thomas Wallis department store in Holborn, did not have an acting background. He was a porter in the furniture department of the shop, a job which appears to have been one in a line of various manual labour roles. He started playing Father Christmas at the tender age of 26, finding it ‘a pleasant relaxation after shifting furniture for eleven months.’ At the other end of the age range, Alfred Hibbard, who played Santa in the Clapham store of Arding & Hobbs, was already retired. Prior to his retirement he worked in the shop as a porter. He took up the Father Christmas role after his retirement, probably to supplement his pension payments. Harrods’ Santa was also a member of staff: Herbert Heslam, who had worked in the calico, cotton and rayon department for twelve years.
It obviously made financial sense for some department stores to use existing staff for this December engagement. These men were often long-term employees so proven to be reliable, and apparently they could be spared on the shop floor despite a likely Christmas rush. Their regular roles demonstrate that department stores regularly employed male staff, but that they were often placed in furniture and home furnishing departments which required more heavy lifting and manual handling.
Other shops went down a different route, hiring freelance actors and models for this seasonal employment. Selfridge’s, for example, opted in 1938 to hire actor and model Charles Mackenzie. Mackenzie, an Australian who had made it over to Britain after fighting as an Anzac in the First World War, estimated he had appeared in up to 200 feature films. Sydney Kempster, who played Santa at Gamage’s department store in Holborn, was also a film extra. Although he was less prolific, he had some high-profile credits to his name such as a small role in Victor Saville’s Sailing Along and the ensemble film O-Kay for Sound. According to the article, ‘in the old days of silent films’, Kempster also ran a cinema.
A similarly enterprising attitude was taken by Stanley Ross, who played Father Christmas at Whiteley’s in Bayswater. Prior to the First World War Ross was a producer of silent films, producing two films with the famous actor Lupino Lane. Ross also acted in films. The most varied showman playing Santa in 1938 was Hamilton Harvey, who took up the red mantle for Derry & Tom’s in Kensington. Harvey was a conjuror, ventriloquist, musician and composer with his own music hall act. According to the Picture Post article he played eight different instruments – it is not recorded whether he incorporated any of them in his Santa Claus act.
This Father Christmas article is typical of the things Picture Post printed in its early years. It combines fairly in-depth historical detail with contemporary reportage on a human interest topic. One can imagine the editorial pitch meeting in which a reporter suggests finding out who is behind the fake moustaches and beards of London’s Santa’s. The 1930s still saw a high number of large department stores in the capital, each willing to invest in a real, permanent Father Christmas for December to draw in the crowds.
At the same time the men taking up the elaborate robes in these opulent surroundings were largely of working-class backgrounds. For some, playing the role was a welcome break from a physically demanding job on the shop floor. For others, it represented a quasi-steady gig in an uncertain free-lance career in the developing entertainment industry. The Picture Post article not only gives an insight into Christmas traditions of the late 1930s, but also into consumer culture and working conditions of the time.
 ‘These are the Father Christmases of London’, Picture Post, 17 December 1938, pp. 34-37