Contract Claus: What mid-century Toronto retailers looked for in a Santa

All jobs have special qualifications — and Santa is no different. So what gave some candidates the edge?
By Jamie Bradburn - Published on December 21, 2018
a black and white Simpson's Christmas ad
Detail from a Simpsons ad that appeared in the November 14, 1964, edition of the Globe and Mail.

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What makes a good Santa Claus? Back in 1955, the Unemployment Insurance Commission, the forerunner of today’s Employment Insurance system, had a pretty clear idea: “He must be good-natured, or, more aptly, jolly. He must be patient, preferably long-suffering, and he must like children, and like them for more than a few minutes at a stretch.”

In that era’s edition of The Dictionary of Occupational Titles and Trades, “Santa Claus” was listed as an unskilled trade. Duties consisted of “playing with and amusing children, and distributing gifts.” (Alphabetically, it came between “sanitary-tub maker” and “sapphire stylus grinder.”)

When the 1955 holiday season began, the Toronto-area office of the UIC was experiencing a higher demand for sanitary-tub makers than for Santas, having received no requests at all for the latter. This didn’t surprise staff: they usually received just three or four calls per year for Santa Claus, when somebody hired by a small retailer fell suddenly ill or failed to show up. The demand was so low that the UIC didn’t keep a list of candidates on file, instead screening them only when a call came in. “It’s difficult to find a Santa Claus,” a UIC official told the Globe and Mail. “The pay is low, the position is seasonable and extremely temporary, and it is a tough job.”

But department stores, other large retailers, and community-service clubs had few problems hiring Santas during the 1950s. The candidates were usually recent retirees or employees whose physical appearance or positive outlook made them an appropriate choice. Sometimes, a local celebrity filled the role — wrestler Whipper Billy Watson made the rounds as Santa for charitable organizations.

By the mid-1960s, the growth of suburban shopping malls and plazas across the province, coupled with a low unemployment rate, made it harder to find people to play Santa. Mistakes were made — the personnel manager of North York’s Lawrence Plaza told the Toronto Daily Star in 1964 that it had hired “a guy who was on the bottle” and kept falling asleep on the job. That year, Yorkdale Shopping Centre placed an advertisement in August but didn’t hire anyone until the holidays were nearly upon it.

The demand for Santas prompted one of them to open a training school in the late ’60s. Besides splitting Santa duties with others at Yorkdale, Gordon Roberts ran an agency that sent Santas to shopping centres and on home visits. The main qualification, he told the Toronto Daily Star in 1969, was an obvious one: liking children. “I try never to let a child leave my knee without laughing,” he said. Roberts thought that college students were among his best pupils because they could cope with the physical demands of the job. Over his week-long course, students learned how to deal with such challenges as beard-pullers (it was suggested that they should cry “ouch” during the first tug to discourage kids from pulling the beard off). What about children who insisted on pointing out that they’d seen a different Santa elsewhere? They could be told that, because of how many youngsters around the world wanted to see Santa, helpers had been hired. “I say that when they tell me what they want for Christmas, their voices are tape-recorded by the helpers and sent on to Santa.” He stressed that one should look to parents for hints on how to handle requests and never directly promise a child that they would receive a particular gift.

a black and white photo of a child on Santa's knee

Roberts also counselled Santas on how to get a child to move along when there were long lineups. “You lift them from your knee and set them down firmly, saying ‘Ho! Ho! Ho! God bless you and Mer-r-r-y Christmas’ then you wheel quickly and take the next one in line.”

By the 1980s, Santas increasingly had to contend with unusual requests and visitors. A 1981 Star article titled “Perils of Playing Santa: Kids Chop and Kick You” described situations perhaps even more challenging than the chopping and kicking. “Precocious pre-teen boys,” for example, may ask for a girl for Christmas. And then there were the “weirdos”:  one adult couple apparently brought a beard-destroying pet monkey dressed in baby clothes for a visit. Stores increasingly farmed out the hiring of Santas to the photo studios that snapped the pictures — although, in 1985,  Ottawa’s Elmvale Acres Shopping Centre hired its from the Quebec Association of Santa Clauses, an organization whose employees were required to weigh at least 225 pounds and be clean-shaven, bilingual teetotalers who loved being around kids.

Malls continue to contract out Christmas duties. “We hire experts because it may be the most important customer service and public relations that happens in a mall during Christmas,” Cambridge Shopping Centres’ national marketing director Shirley Mesbur told the Canadian Press in 2000. For all the attempts to innovate — think “Fashion Santa” from Toronto’s Yorkdale Shopping Centre — the job requirements remain much the same as they were in 1955: must be jolly, patient, and able to stand children for more than a few minutes at a time.

Sources: the November 18, 1955 and December 16, 1968 editions of the Globe and Mail; the December 23, 1985 edition of the Ottawa Citizen; the December 9, 2000 edition of the Sault Star; and the December 4, 1964, December 22, 1969, and December 21, 1981 editions of the Toronto Star.

Jamie Bradburn is a Toronto-based writer/researcher specializing in historical and contemporary civic matters.

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