One of Edgar's many successors, via Getty
One of Edgar's many successors, via Getty

James Edgar, the Pioneering Department Store Santa

One of Edgar's many successors, via Getty
One of Edgar's many successors, via Getty

Edward Pearson was in his 90s when he told a newspaper reporter about the most magical day of his childhood.

“As long as I live,” he said, “and I’ve lived quite a few years, I’ll never forget that experience.”

It was December 1890, and a young Pearson was wandering the aisles of the Boston Store, an upscale department store in Brockton, Massachusetts, when he turned a corner and saw a portly man with a white beard and a red suit.

“All of a sudden, right in front of me, I saw Santa Claus,” he recalled. “I couldn’t believe my eyes.” The man smiled and approached Pearson. Like most kids, Pearson had only seen interpretations of Santa in magazine illustrations, never in the flesh. But here, in a department store in a small town near Boston, was the man himself.

In reality, Santa was James Edgar, the owner of the Boston Store and a man who bore a resemblance to the holiday icon long before he ever asked a tailor to fashion a costume for him. For the hundreds of kids who visited his store, Edgar became something their eyes could hardly believe: the first department store Santa.

Edgar was born in Duns, Berwickshire, Scotland in 1843, arriving in the United States some 24 years later [PDF]. A big, jolly man who carried his generosity with him everywhere, Edgar opened the Boston Store—later renamed Edgar’s—in 1878 and promptly began to personify the holiday spirit.

While other area stores often had their workers staying late, Edgar closed his store four evenings a week so workers could be home with their families. If a customer wanted to put an item on layaway, he gave them four percent monthly interest on whatever amount they had deposited. If a child in the area was in need of medical attention and had no money, Edgar would make sure they got the help they needed. While he did it anonymously, it wasn’t hard to figure out who was behind it.

With one daughter of his own, Edgar loved kids. He hired trolleys to ferry thousands of them into a nearby grove for a Fourth of July picnic every year, where he enjoyed dressing up in costume for their amusement. He was Uncle Sam one year and a cricket player the next. He’d climb to the roof of his store and toss pennies into the crowd below.

For Christmas, Edgar originally donned a clown costume to spread cheer inside his store. He did this for years until, in 1890, the idea struck him to try his hand at portraying Santa, using the Thomas Nast illustrations of the character from 1860s issues of Harper’s magazine as inspiration. Edgar made his way into Boston, hired a tailor, and picked up his Santa suit.

“I have never been able to understand why the great gentleman lives at the North Pole,” he once said of his ambitions. “He is so far away. He is only able to see the children one day a year. He should live closer to them.”

To say children were awestruck would not be an exaggeration. Like Pearson, they had never conceived of meeting their mysterious benefactor face-to-face before. Lines began to spiral out of the store and around the block, surging when school was let out. Edgar had planned on being Santa for just an hour a day and three on Saturdays, but he eventually had to hire a second man to play Santa when the demand outstripped his energy.

The notion of a living Santa was so intriguing that Edgar’s store attracted visitors from as far away as New York and Rhode Island. By the following year, several other stores across the country had picked up on the idea, which helped bolster foot traffic and sales. Unlike many of his successors, however, Edgar never had a place to sit and idle. He roamed his store, actively seeking out children so they could confide in him.

By the time Edgar died in September 1909, the department store Santa had become a tradition. The owners of his namesake property also seemed determined to continue his philanthropy, devoting an entire floor to cobbling shoes for the poor during the 1920s.

Edgar was not the first man to put on a Santa costume: because of the character's many incarnations—from 4th century bishop to Coca-Cola advertising icon—that will forever be an issue of semantics. But he was the first documented department store Santa, and he arguably was the man who most closely resembled the character in terms of the good will he circulated. When he died, his funeral service was held in his second-floor apartment in Brockton. As soon as local schools let out for lunch, hundreds of children filed past his casket to pay their respects.

Additional Sources
“Original Department Store Santa,” The Billings Gazette, December 1972 [PDF]; “Department Store Santas Owe Paychecks to Col. Jim Edgar,” Enterprise, Dec. 20, 1987 [PDF]; “The First Santa Claus,” Yankee, 1979 [PDF].

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Animals
Want to Recycle Your Christmas Tree? Feed It to an Elephant
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Sean Gallup/Getty Images

When the holiday season finally comes to a close, people get creative with the surplus of dead Christmas trees. One San Francisco-based artist transformed brittle shrubs into hanging installation pieces. Others use pine needles for mulch, or repurpose trees into bird sanctuaries. For the average person, sticking it into a wood chipper or "treecycling" it as part of a community program are all eco-friendly ways to say goodbye to this year's Douglas fir. None of these solutions, however, are as cute as the waste-cutting strategy employed by some zoos around the world: giving them to elephants.

Each year, zookeepers at Tierpark Berlin—a facility that bills itself as “Europe’s largest adventure animal park”—feed the elephants unsold pine trees. The plants are reportedly pesticide-free, and they serve as a good (albeit prickly) supplement to the pachyderms' usual winter diets.

A bit closer to home, the residents of The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee rely on local residents to take part in their annual Christmas Tree Drive. In addition to being nutrient-rich, the tree's needles are said to help aid in an elephant's digestion. But beyond all that, it's pretty adorable to watch.

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5 Eco-Friendly Ways to Dispose of Your Christmas Tree
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What’s the environmentally safest way to dispose of your Christmas tree? It’s hard to say. Grown, managed, transported, and recycled efficiently, a real Christmas tree’s environmental impact should be near neutral. Unfortunately, not all Christmas tree plantations are equal in their environmental impact.

The most eco-friendly way is to leave the tree in the ground, where it belongs, so you never have to dispose of it. But then you don't have a Christmas tree in your house to bring festive cheer. One thing you can do is be environmentally smart when it comes to the tree's disposal. After this festive season, why not try one of these eco-friendly methods.

1. CHIP IT.

If you’re lucky enough to have access to a big wood-chipper, you may be able to chip the entire tree. Wood-chip is great as a decorative landscaping material. But if you really want to do great things for the environment (and if you have access to a lot of Christmas trees), you could make a bioreactor to denitrify water. Nitrates are put on farms across the world to help increase crop output, but a considerable amount is washed away into lakes and rivers where it’s disastrous for fish and potentially toxic for people. A wood chip bioreactor encourages the growth of bacteria that break down the nitrates in the drainage water, reducing the amount that gets into the water supply. It's not a simple project, however. To make one, you have to dig a big trench, get the water to flow through said trench, and fill it with wood chips. More info can be found here [PDF].

2. CRAFT IT.


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If your tree hasn’t yet let go of its needles—and you haven’t yet let go of Christmas, get crafty with it. Cut off small branches and bind them around a circle of wire to make an attractive wreath. This looks even better if some of the cones are still attached. If you’re feeling really adventurous, you could set up an essential oil extractor to get a supercharged Christmas scent. If you are already distilling alcohol, you have everything you need (here's how to do it). With a little less effort and equipment, you can make a weaker liquid called hydrosol, which is a fragrant condensate water containing water-soluble parts of the needles.

3. STICK IT.

Many legumes, such as garden peas, are thigmotropic, meaning that they respond to objects they touch, growing in coils along or up them. Needle-free Christmas tree branches have lots of twigs, texture, and knobby protrusions for peas and beans to get a grip on. This allows them to grow upwards strongly toward light. Simply stick a small tree branch in the soil next to each new shoot for a free, effective legume-climbing frame. Another advantage of this technique is that it makes grazing animals less likely to munch those tender green shoots, as they tend to avoid getting Christmas tree twigs spiked up their noses.

4. TREECYCLE IT.


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Come January, it’s cold, the festivities are over, work looms, and you’ve got too much on your mind to be thinking about dead Christmas tree horticulture or crafts. Fortunately, a simple solution is at hand: Most counties and municipalities now provide Christmas tree recycling points where you can take your tree for chipping. Some “TreeCycle” points will even exchange your tree for a bag of wood-chip or chip mulch. OK, this probably means that you’ll have to jam that Christmas tree into your car once more, but as long as you don’t have to drive too many miles out of your way, Christmas tree recycling is a quick and easy environmentally-friendly option.

5. DONATE IT.

After you’ve had your Christmas cheer, why shouldn’t fish have some fun? Several communities have programs in place where they’ll take your old Christmas tree, drill a hole in the base, tie a brick to it, and throw it in a lake. When humans create artificial lakes, they tend to be relatively featureless on the bottom for easy dredging. That’s great for us, but it means baby fish have nowhere to escape predators. Christmas trees provide a nice, temporary place for the fish to hide out and explore.

If, on the other hand, you’d like to see your Christmas tree mauled by a pride of lions, that’s OK too! Some zoos around the world take Christmas tree donations (but please remove all the tinsel first) and allow the animals to play with them.

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