History of Sidewalk Santa
Sidewalk Santa is first introduced in Los Angeles during the balmy winter of 1900. According to historical records, the five original Sidewalk Santas are hauled off to jail and booked for creating a nuisance. A public outcry ensues and the Santas are released. They go on to raise some $800 for Christmas dinners for the poor, far exceeding their goal of $500. In short order, Sidewalk Santa begins to appear across the country, arriving in New York City in 1902.
During the Great Depression, Sidewalk Santa helps raise money for Volunteers of America programs across the country. New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Portland, and Louisville all receive yearly visits from Sidewalk Santa.
Despite war, rapid social change, and general world disorder, Sidewalk Santa appears during the holidays on many street corners beside the familiar chimney, ringing the bell to remind Americans to help their neighbors in need.
Speaking to a reporter from the New York Sun, W.R. Apetz, former head of Volunteers of America-New York, describes the difficulty of finding men to suit up as Santa during wartime: "It is a real problem getting workers this year. Every Santa on a street corner today is over 60 and one veteran is 71. All were unemployed - their past experiences included work as porters, sign carriers, countermen, and general restaurant work."
Volunteers of America-Greater New York begins a new tradition--Santa School, which teaches Santas-in-training such practical skills as how to firmly attach their wig and beard and how to answer the all important question, Are you the real Santa? A celebrity teacher instructs Santas in bell-ringing, proper ho-ho-ho’s, leads them in the Sidewalk Santa Pledge and finally, presents them with a diploma. Then a hearty steak-and-egg breakfast is served, beards are attached, their signature white belts are buckled, and the Sidewalk Santas take up positions around midtown Manhattan.
The popularity of Sidewalk Santa increases in the 1960’s. Celebrity supporters of Sidewalk Santa include Lucille Ball, Pat Boone, Victor Borge, Angie Dickenson, Angela Lansbury, Robert Morse, Robert Preston, and David Frost.
The Sidewalk Santa program welcomes its first female Santa--Muriel Burrell. Burrell has a prominent position stationed outside Macy's on 34th Street, calling out "Happy Holidays!" to all who pass by. "I'm the Miracle on 34th Street!" jokes Burrell.
New York's Sidewalk Santa campaign celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2002, beginning a second century of helping those who are hungry during the holidays. Kick-off day includes a parade through New York City’s
Times Square and an appearance on NBC's Today Show. Later in the season, Sidewalk Santa rings the opening bell for the American Stock Exchange.
Harsh winter weather conditions caused concern for the welfare of the formerly homeless men and women who have traditionally worked for us, many of whom have health issues or are fragile in other ways. As a result, while the annual Sidewalk Santa® parade still goes on, we retired the Sidewalk Santas® who stood out in the streets with their chimneys. Of course, if a former Sidewalk Santa® asks to work, we always accommodate them and place them once again alongside one of our signature chimneys.
However, the purpose of the campaign – to feed the hungry – has not changed. We realized that placing a team of Sidewalk Santas® on the street limits us only to those who pass by. Instead, we wanted anyone, anywhere to be able to participate in giving– and so we turned to the virtual world, opening the door for anyone to contribute during the holiday season.
Additionally, actual chimneys are now “adopted” by members of the business community who partner with Volunteers of America to raise money for the Sidewalk Santa® Holiday Food Voucher program.