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The Santa Claus Man

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Posted on December 22, 2015

I had a very enjoyable chat about The Santa Claus Man with Elliot Blair Smith, who's been covering business and financial malfeasance for Bloomberg, USA Today, and other outlets. For MarketWatch, we discussed what lessons The Santa Claus Man may provide for charities and would-be donors today.

Proving that human nature is all but impervious to progress, Gluck was very much a modern man, who would do well today in politics (he was a persuasive letter writer to U.S. presidents, who took him seriously) and at finance (he owned his own brokerage, at one time). From the heart of every self-promoting scheme, the Santa Claus Man followed this resonant strategy, Palmer writes:

“Draft a letter that touches a deep emotion, buttress it with a long list of impressive names and claims, send it far and wide using (a) growing list of donor names, and wait for the checks to roll in.”

What grasping public servant or money manager wouldn’t want a man like Gluck at the ready?

Never fear, Gluck—with his freshly waxed moustache, taste for high living, and lascivious taste for younger women — confronted his own scourges. They included the Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving, which formed at about the same time as his Santa Claus Association did, promoting a decidedly anti-Christmas mantra; and New York City’s public welfare commissioner Bird Coler, who had no charity in his heart for Gluck’s scheme of taking from the rich, and giving to himself.

“To Coler,” Palmer writes, “the holiday season was not a time for sentimentality but for wariness. He looked out from his 10-floor office window and saw a Wild West in need of a sheriff.”

About the time Macy’s was throwing its first Christmas parades, the paths of Gluck and Coler were converging, and soon would collide. Of course, local authorities from the district attorney’s office to the U.S. Secret Service had investigated Gluck before, and never laid a glove upon him.

Coler’s shrewd financial acumen, and personal integrity, had ensured the successful integration of New York’s loose-limbed five boroughs into one city, back in 1898. But in perhaps the ultimate injustice, he was now out of political favor in Gotham City, and about to lose his job. Can you believe it?

Read the full story at MarketWatch.

Posted on December 17, 2015

The Santa Claus Man got a terrific review in Library Journal. Beth Farrell, of the Cleveland State University Law Library, had these kind words to say about the book and Eric Michael Summerer's performance on the audiobook:

Palmer (Weird-o-Pedia) offers an engaging history of early 20th-century New York City and the modern notion of Santa Claus, as well as an entertaining biography of his great-grand uncle John Duval Gluck Jr. In 1913, after learning that hundreds of letters written by New York City’s children to Santa went unanswered every year, Gluck formed the Santa Claus Association, receiving the blessing of the U.S. Postal Service. Gluck, a small-time businessman who had inherited his father’s custom brokerage firm, assembled a team of volunteers who carefully read each letter, flagging any requests that seemed to be from children of means, any repeat requests, or any accounts of starvation, homelessness, or abuse; these latter were forwarded to the Public Charities Commission for further investigation. Letters that successfully made it through the initial screening process were matched up with volunteer donors who had agreed to buy presents for needy children. It was a well-oiled philanthropic machine—until the con man in Gluck couldn’t resist using the charity to gather and promote side business opportunities, increase his standing in New York society, and, eventually, just flat-out line his pockets. Intriguing stories of stolen art, gun-toting Boy Scouts, a child’s kidnapping, Clement Clarke Moore’s writing of A Visit from St Nicholas and the World War I Christmas Day armistice are among the many stories woven into Palmer’s larger account of how Christmas evolved into the celebration we now know. Eric Michael Summerer smoothly delivers this thoroughly enjoyable work.

Verdict Highly recommended for history fans.

Posted on December 16, 2015

Ed Wilkinson, editor of The Tablet, used The Santa Claus Man as a jumping-off point to discuss charitable giving this holiday season and the importance of ensuring donations go to those who most need them. It was a treat to read and shows how these issues remain as important now as they were a century ago:

I just finished reading a book titled “The Santa Claus Man: The Rise and Fall of a Jazz Age Con Man and the Invention of Christmas in New York.”

The author is Alex Palmer and the main subject is John Duvall Gluck, Jr., a distant relative of the author.

Palmer traces the exploits of a talented public relations man of the early 20th century from his well-intentioned formation of the Santa Claus Association to his eventual exposure as a con man who is fleecing the public in the name of Christmas.

Prior to the Santa Claus Association, letters to Santa received by the main branch of the Post Office in Manhattan were discarded. Gluck took it upon himself to have the Post Office designate his group as the recipient of those letters and he then tried to match up worthy requests with well-heeled citizens.

Along the way, Palmer takes the reader on an interesting and informative history of how Christmas has become the monster holiday that it is in New York. The reader is treated to stories about bull fights in Coney Island, the origins of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, the creation of the Boy Scouts of America, the beginnings of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, originally named the Christmas Parade, and many other interesting tidbits about life in New York.

Eventually, the PR man allows greed and excess to get in the way and after about 10 years, the Santa Claus Association becomes the subject of various investigations that eventually blow the lid off the charismatic figure as a con man and paves the way for the exposure of the Santa Claus Association as a money-making scheme that mostly profits Gluck.

I was intrigued by the story because we here at The Tablet are in the midst of our Bright Christmas Campaign that seeks to ensure a Christmas celebration for the neediest kids and families in the diocese. Thank God, there has never been any question about how we use the donations sent to us by readers. We have been transparent about how we distribute the funds. The money is sent to priests, sisters and lay leaders in diocesan organizations in Brooklyn and Queens to assist those in their care at Christmas. For the past several weeks, we have been telling you about the different parties, pageants and presents that Bright Christmas sponsors.

So far this season, we have collected more than $67,000 – slightly behind last year’s pace –but we expect to be able to surpass the $100,000 mark again this year. Less than 6 percent of the amount received is used to pay for postage and printing costs. The rest goes to the parishes and agencies that are in direct touch with moms and dads and children.

While we are still in the process of sending out checks, we already are receiving thank-you notes like the one from Sister Woohee Sofie Lee, S.F.M.A., at Trinity Human Services in Williamsburg.

“Your grant will help us provide Christmas gifts for many children in our neighborhood,” she writes. “This year, we are planning to serve over 400 children at our Christmas party.”

The Santa Claus Man met his demise but fortunately, people like yourselves enable us today to brighten Christmas for many families and children in Brooklyn and Queens. We are still collecting funds. If you haven’t already contributed, send your check – made out to DeSales Media Group with a notation for Bright Christmas – to The Tablet’s Bright Christmas, 1712 Tenth Ave., Brooklyn, N.Y. 11215.

Posted on December 12, 2015

This weekend, groups of twenty- and thirtysomethings decked out in cheap Santa costumes will march drunkenly through the streets of New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and other cities. These roving bands of merrymakers began as a novel distraction from the usual holiday shopping and family gatherings. But over two decades, SantaCon has morphed into something more exasperating, and the same people that once embraced the event have started calling for an end to the shenanigans.

The public’s annoyance with SantaCon is understandable. Started in San Francisco in 1994 as a one-off act of performance art meant to “take Christmas back from consumerists,” as co-creator John Law described it to the Village Voice last year, it has mutated into something much larger and louder. Where Law and his friends had dropped in on a Macy’s and high-class ball at the Fairmont Hotel, the thousands of Santas joining in the fun more recently stumble only from one bar to the next. Instead of singing carols and dancing with old ladies, like the original SantaCon crew, these dollar-store Santas must be warned not to “roam the streets urinating, littering, vomiting, and vandalizing,” as New York Police Department Lt. John Cocchi wrote in a release. It’s become a sloppier and less creative Halloween parade. St. Patrick’s Day with jingle bells.

Last year, the bars of Bushwick, Brooklyn, banned the event. A group called Boycott SantaCon launched a campaign urging local business owners to “prohibit from your bar anyone dressed as Santa Claus, Mrs. Claus, sexy Claus, elves, sexy elves, reindeer, sexy reindeer, snowmen, sexy snowmen, candy canes, sexy candy canes, Krampus, sexy Krampus, or any other holiday-themed costume or sexy variant of that costume.” This year, controversy has flared in San Francisco, where bar and restaurant owners have been placing signs in their windows reading “No Love for SantaCon.”

But while these Santas clearly need some boundaries, critics go too far in pushing to ban the event altogether. Two years ago, Jason O. Gilbert wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times that, “SantaCon is distinctive, and arguably impressive, in that it contributes absolutely zero value—cultural, artistic, aesthetic, diversionary, culinary or political—to its host neighborhood. Quite simply, SantaCon is a parasite.”

This is not totally fair. In fact, the debauched idiocy of SantaCon offers spectators some surprising cultural and historic value. Specifically, it serves as a peek into how Christmas began in the United States. Despite complaints that these sloppy Santas degrade the holidays, they actually embody their original spirit in many ways.

Read the rest at Slate.

Posted on December 08, 2015

I love reading classics like A Christmas Carol or The Gift of the Magi around the holidays (not to mention watching movies like A Christmas Story or Scrooged, considered a classic among my family members). But while fictional tales of Christmas spirit go great with spiced cider and the scent of evergreen, I find that nothing beats true holiday stories. That’s what initially drew me to tell the true story in my new book The Santa Claus Man, about a clever New York publicist who created a group that answered thousands of children’s Santa letters. In researching the book, I encountered a number of other fun and fascinating true holiday stories. From tales of real-life Santas and Christmas charity, to the histories behind familiar holiday traditions, here are some nonfiction titles that will add to your holiday cheer.

General Washington’s Christmas Farewell by Stanley Weintraub

If you think you’re happy to get some time off with your family around the holidays, imagine how General George Washington felt in 1783, when he learned a peace treaty had been signed with England and that he could return home at the end of the Revolutionary War. Weintraub takes the reader back to this moment, as the war hero travels through New York City, Philadelphia, and Annapolis, bidding farewell to his soldiers and choosing not to assume a position as virtual king of the US, but instead to head to Mount Vernon for the holidays.

A Secret Gift by Ted Gup

In 1933, during the worst of the Great Depression, a Romanian immigrant living in Canton, Ohio, set out to bring some Christmas cheer to dozens of families, placing an ad in the local newspaper, offering cash to those in need. While the story would make for a touching holiday tale on its own, almost as fascinating is the family investigation the author undertakes, as the lead character is his own grandfather. Delving into aspects he never knew about his relative, and interviewing many of the descendants of those helped by the generosity, Gup offers an uplifting story ideal for when family is gathered during Christmas.

Read the rest at BookBub.

Posted on December 04, 2015

“My pals say there is no Santa but I just have to believe in him,” writes 12-year-old Wilson Castile Jr., writing to the jolly fellow in 1939. Twelve might seem a bit old to believe in the portly resident of the North Pole. But Wilson, writing from his home in Annapolis, Missouri, seems worthy of extra sympathy. His explains in the letter that his father, a deputy sheriff, was shot and killed by gangsters and his new stepdad “is so mean he never buys me anything.”

Such sad or funny stories are not unusual when reading through Santa letters, going back to the 19th century. Notes sent to Santa are an unlikely lens through which to understand the past, offering a peek into the worries, desires and quirks of the times in which they were written. But as interesting as the children’s notes themselves are the changing ways adults have sought to answer them and their motivations for doing so.

Three new books shine a spotlight on mail addressed for Mr. Claus this season, telling the history of Santa letters from different angles: Letters to Santa , a selection of notes from 1930 to the present, selected from the thousands sent to the Santa Claus Museum in Santa Claus, Indiana (the city where Wilson Castile sent his letter); Dear Santa, which gathers earlier letters dated from 1870–1920; and The Santa Claus Man, my own book, which tells a true-crime tale of a Jazz Age huckster who abused a Santa letter–answering scheme to fill his own stockings with cash.

Together, the books illustrate how children’s requests and perceptions of Santa Claus changed over more than a century and a half. But they also reflect the durability and timelessness of the ritual, and how even when so much else about the world changes, children’s imaginations (and desire for toys) remain a constant.

This might seem surprising considering how the practice of Santa letters began. Early versions of Santa Claus tended to depict him as a disciplinarian. The first image of St. Nicholas in the United States, commissioned by the New-York Historical Society in 1810, showed him in ecclesiastical garb with a switch in hand next to a crying child, while the earliest known Santa picture-book shows him leaving a birch rod in a naughty child’s stocking, which he “Directs a Parent’s hand to use / When virtue’s path his sons refuse.”

The earliest Santa letters are similarly didactic, usually coming from St. Nicholas, rather than written to him. The minister Theodore Ledyard Cuyler recalled receiving “an autograph letter from Santa Claus, full of good counsels” during his childhood in 1820s western New York. In the 1850s, Fanny Longfellow (wife of the poet Henry Wadsworth) wrote her three children letters each Christmas that commented on their behavior over the previous year and how they could improve it.

“[Y]ou have picked up some naughty words which I hope you will throw away as you would sour or bitter fruit,” Santa explained in an 1853 letter. “Try to stop to think before you use any, and remember if no one else hears you God is always near.” In an era before childhood was celebrated as a distinct period of a person’s life, gratifying kids’ imaginations was less important than teaching them manners that would speed them toward adulthood.

Read the rest at Smithsonian.

Posted on December 03, 2015

New York Madison Square Park TreeWhile many New Yorkers might assume that Rockefeller Plaza has always been home to the city’s official tree lighting, for two decades the big event took place about 30 blocks south of 30 Rock, in a gathering that served as a model for the rest of the country.

In December 1912, Madison Square Park played host to New York’s first citywide Christmas tree. The idea of a big outdoor gathering to light up a tree was a novel one — most people celebrating the holiday did so in their homes, and any other large holiday celebrations had generally taken place in churches, bazaars, or theaters.

But in 1912, the city banded together to erect the first truly public tree in the country.

Unlike this year’s celebration, which gives New Yorkers a month to enjoy the evergreen smell and glittering lights, the city’s first tree didn’t light up until Christmas Eve. It was a striking evergreen, sourced from the forests of the Adirondacks and hauled to Madison Square Park. Instead of “Christmas Tree,” this was called the “Tree of Light” in newspapers and in promotions, and with good reason: illuminating it required 2,300 colored electric bulbs (city officials had only planned on 1,300 lights, creating a last-minute scramble as it was being prepared).

On the big day, crowds began gathering in the snow-covered park by early afternoon, with thousands there by the time church bells chimed at 4:50. Finally, as 25,000 New Yorkers pressed together in the park, a call of trumpets announced something the city had never seen before: the lighting of a huge public Christmas tree. As the electric bulbs ignited, including the brilliant “Star of Bethlehem” at the top of the tree, the crowd cheered.

Read the full story at New York Press.

Posted on December 03, 2015

One of the strongest reminders that we have entered the (ever-lengthening) holiday season is that first scent of evergreen. But while the smell of fir, pine, or spruce may be one of the most familiar parts of Christmastime, there are plenty of things about the beloved conifers that may not be so well-known. From surprising early holiday practices to current research being conducted to build a better tree, here are some lesser-known facts of these features of the holidays.

IN SOME HOMES, TREES WERE HUNG.

In southwest Germany during the 17th and 18th centuries, it was popular, particularly among the lower classes, to hang smaller trees from the ceiling or rafters. This allowed for a flashy display, but kept the goodies in the tree out of the reach of children. Some families even hung the tree upside-down, since “pointing the root toward heaven was supposed to imbue the tree with divine powers,” according to Bernd Brunner in his book Inventing the Christmas Tree. In other German households, “Christmas pyramids” built of wood and covered with evergreen branches and candles would serve as the centerpiece of celebrations.

A GERMAN PRINCE IS CREDITED WITH POPULARIZING THEM IN AMERICA.

England’s Prince Albert is credited with helping bring the Christmas tree from his native Germany to the English-speaking world, making it a well-publicized tradition in the royal household of his wife, Queen Victoria. Godey’s Lady’s Book editor Sarah Josepha Hale—one of the main advocates for a national Thanksgiving holiday—played an important role in promoting Christmas trees in the U.S. when her magazine published an illustration of the British royal family with their tree in 1850. She edited out Victoria’s crown jewels, Albert’s mustache and sash, and any reference to who the family were, transforming the picture from a piece of royal marketing to a paragon of middle-class, American, Christmas celebration. Albert would remain associated with the Christmas tree for years. Following his death on December 14, 1861, English families living in New York City reportedly draped their trees in black in honor of his memory.

Read the other 9 facts at Mental Floss.

Posted on December 02, 2015

Beneath the ever-changing surface of New York City, there are many stories that have been overlooked by the march of time. We spoke with some of the city’s biggest history buffs—including folks from the New York Historical Society, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, and elsewhere—to learn about some of the most interesting bits of Gotham history.

1. THERE ARE SKELETONS EVERYWHERE.

The African Burial Ground National Monument, located near City Hall, memorializes a site where free and enslaved Africans and African-Americans were buried for over a century. After the site closed to burials in 1794, the bones were more or less forgotten about until excavation began on a federal office building in 1991, and shovels began striking skeletons.

Today, there's more to the area than meets the eye. “The African Burial Ground memorial actually marks a very small area of the burial ground,” Young says. “Many of the surrounding buildings were actually built on top of the burial ground in the 19th century, including America’s first department store, owned by A.T. Stewart, at 280 Broadway, which is still there.” (The building, anyway.)

While the site contains the reinterred remains of more than 400 people, some 15,000 men, women, and children are estimated to have been buried in the cemetery’s grounds, which once covered more than 6.6 acres. The memorial itself extends just over a third of an acre—which means there’s still plenty of bodies around.

And this isn't the only recent discovery of human remains in New York. This November, construction workers digging a water main under Washington Square Park discovered a pair of burial vaults dating back to the early 19th century. Dozens of coffins and skeletons, likely belonging to the Cedar Street Presbyterian Church that once stood nearby, were uncovered. Though archeologists are working to learn more about the remains using high-resolution photography, no one will be disturbing the vaults, for a water main or otherwise.

2. THE STATUE OF LIBERTY HAS CHANGED COLOR.

The Statue of Liberty used to be dark brown. For the first two decades after it was erected in 1886, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi’s masterpiece was the color of the hammered copper "skin" of the statue. Over the years, it naturally turned green as a result of age and harsh weather conditions. By the time color photographs could accurately capture Lady Liberty’s color, she had turned the familiar hue we know today.

Read the other 8 secrets at Mental Floss..

Posted on December 01, 2015

On Christmas Day 100 years ago, plans were announced for the building of a grand monument in Manhattan—to Santa Claus. Designed by famed architects George and Edward Blum (who devised Gramercy House at 235 22nd Street and The Capitol apartments at 12 E 87th Street), the Santa Claus Building was expected to serve as headquarters for a number of youth charities, a resource for the city's needy, and a giant toy store, all packed into one stunning Beaux Arts building. But more than anything, it was to provide an international symbol of "spirit of Christmas"—a real-life Santa's workshop. The speed with which the press and public embraced the idea, and the reasons why it was never actually built, embody the optimism (or maybe naiveté) of the Jazz Age, and the fast-growing prominence of Christmas as a massive commercial event.

The Santa Claus Building was the brainchild of John Duval Gluck, Jr., the founder of the Santa Claus Association, which in 1913 took on the responsibility of answering the letters children sent to the mythical saint (which instead of going to Santa's imaginary workshop, were shuttled to the Dead Letter Office along with other mail going to nonexistent addresses). A former customs broker, Gluck had stepped forward to take charge of answering Santa letters in the city. The idea caught on fast, with volunteers and donations rolling in to help ensure that the poor children who wrote to Santa were not forgotten on Christmas.

In the Santa Claus Association's third year in operation, Gluck called reporters into the group's offices (on the 30th floor of the Woolworth Building) and announced an ambitious plan: "The peculiar nature of our work calls for a building of our own," he said.

Read the full story at Curbed.

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