How a Man Named Charles W. Howard Inspired the Santa We Know and Love

UNITED STATES - NOVEMBER 24: Santa Claus waves to the crowd at the end of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade
Evy Mages/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

There is a lot to learn about the history and the evolution of Santa Claus. There is one man who was the Santa in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade for almost 20 years and truly inspired the Santa we know and love today. His name was Charles W. Howard. He was a toymaker and a farmer in the small town of Albion, N.Y.

The idea of Santa followed him since he was a little kid when he first played Santa in his fourth-grade play. As an adult, he became a toymaker and worked with many New York department stores to build toys and displays. As he worked in the city during the holidays, he became irritated at the Santas he saw and called them “unprofessional and unkempt.” He thought he could be a better Santa and become the holiday jolly character in his town.

UNITED STATES - NOVEMBER 26: Santa Claus is last in Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade and waves from float at Columbus Circle

Paul DeMaria/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

News spread that he was the best Santa around and he started becoming Santa at department stores. In 1937, after a suggestion from a reporter, he started the Charles W. Howard Santa School, which trains Santas all over the world, teaching them how to act appropriately and treat children with kindness and respect. When the film Miracle on 34th Street was in production, he was called in to serve as a technical director, teaching Edmund Gwenn how to become the perfect Santa Claus.

MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET, Edmund Gwenn, 1947

Everett Collection

Macy’s soon heard about Howard and his school and invited him to be the lead Santa for its 1948 Thanksgiving Day Parade. Fans loved him as Santa so much, he reprised his role each year at the parade until 1965, a year before he passed away. Howard loved being Santa and loved Christmas so much that he built the amusement park Christmas Park in Albion, N.Y. in 1953, complete with a train and reindeer petting zoos. Unfortunately, it closed down when he died in 1966.

MIDLAND, MI - OCTOBER 17: Santa Claus student Tom Carmendy, of Westminster, Colorado puts on his Santa Claus suit prior to performing for a group of elementary school children during the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School workshop on October 17, 2008 in Midland, Michigan. The legend of Santa Claus has endured many centuries. The Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School is becoming legendary as it is in it's 71st year of classes. Student Santas gather from around the world to share their common love of Christmas and the magical spirit of Santa Claus. They share their stories, learn common traditions, and values that started at this school from the beginning

Al Bello/Getty Images

While he has been gone for decades, his contributions to the character of Santa and Christmas itself are not forgotten. His granddaughter, Jane Holland, shared, “It’s really not the persona of Santa we take with us. What we carry inside us, really, is his character. My grandpa was a giving, loving person. It was never about him, it was always about what he could do to make somebody else happy or make somebody else smile. The biggest gift he gave was hope. That’s what we really take with us.”

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