On a Christmas morning much like this, 117 years ago, the children of Eau Claire ran wide-eyed and full of wonder to their Christmas trees, anxious to see Santa’s gifts. For most children, Santa had outdone himself, leaving in his merry wake a smorgasbord of candy and nuts and oranges. And the toys! Oh, the toys! From the rocking horses festooned with silver bows, to the dollies fast asleep in their cribs.
Yet the greatest gift was confirmation of Santa’s existence, which had recently been called into question by a pair of local boys, John Doves and Eugene Cheney, both of whom had penned letters to the local newspaper claiming that a recent Santa sighting was none other than Frank Skinner of Whipple Street.
The accusation sent shockwaves throughout Eau Claire.
Or maybe not. I suppose we’ll never know.
But maybe more so than usual, Santa was on the mind of every child that year, as well as the city’s newspaper editor.
Who can know the editor’s true motive for what happened next? Boredom, perhaps? Or a chance to sell a few more papers? In my preferred version, the editor was trying to counteract the damage wrought by Frank Skinner’s unsanctioned Santa impersonation. The children of Eau Claire were in need of a little extra cheer that year, and the newspaper was the thing that might give it to them.
Taking matters into his own hands, on December 22, 1903, the editor of the Eau Claire Daily Telegram published an above-the-fold article titled, “Santa Talked: Telegram Reporter Sends Word.” The first-person account — allegedly written by one “William Christmasville” — recounts the Eau Claire journalist’s journey to the North Pole for a sit down with Santa.
Reaching for his press pass, Christmasville began his journey north, eventually arriving at Santa’s private office, where the reporter glanced 200 letters from Eau Claire’s children piled high atop the desk. Upon questioning Santa on the quality of those letters, Santa replied that he was quite pleased.
“In fact,” Santa added, “(Eau Claire children) can write better than those of any other city in the world. They must have good teachers.”
Next, Christmasville pressed Santa on a range of issues. When will you arrive in Eau Claire? (Christmas Eve). Yes, but what time? (No comment). How will you distinguish the children?
Santa paused, considered it, and then — much to the editor’s enthusiasm back home — put in a plug for the paper, assuring the Telegram’s readers that he was a regular subscriber and had “saved the Telegram’s art section containing the pictures of pupils in the different schools.”
Christmasville’s interview ended on a somber note, with Santa conceding that not every Eau Claire child would receive a visit from him.
Regrettably, seven local youngsters had made his naughty list; their infractions ranging from failing to complete their schoolwork, to being cross with their mothers.
Always the optimist, Santa “refused to give the names of these children,” Christmasville reported, “because he said they might be better by Christmas.”
Christmasville’s dispatch was published between a story of a train wreck in Kansas City that left nine people dead, and a murderer who was brought to justice in New York. Admittedly, it was a nice change of pace.
In the days leading up to Christmas, the Telegram continued its double coverage. Between the advertisements and the hard-hitting news, the paper published dozens of local letters to Santa. Which is how we now know that Bertha Hempleman wanted a new sled and leggings that year, while Hazel Cheney asked for a piece of calico for her doll’s dress. Cora Derouin asked for a set of dishes; Kate Brown, a handkerchief box; Arnold Hatch, a steam-powered train; Muriel Daley, a pompadour comb; and George Fletcher (who may have made the naughty list) demanded a gun and a whip.
While there’s no way of knowing how Santa fared on the specifics of gift-giving, we do know he made good on his promise to arrive in Eau Claire on Christmas Eve.
The Christmas day edition of the paper confirmed it, noting that Santa was spotted the previous night at First Baptist Church on Fourth Avenue, where he made a “liberal distribution of gifts.” Meanwhile, at Lake Street Methodist, congregants enjoyed organ music, the children’s choir, and, yes, their very own Santa appearance. Not far away at First Congregational, Reverend Dr. Frizzell — who perhaps could not land the big man on such a busy night — entertained a packed house with stories from Ben Hur, complete with 100 accompanying illustrations.
Christmas, it seemed, had been saved.
But just for good measure, in his Christmas day edition, the editor offered one last pitch on behalf of the holiday. The editor began by acknowledging that though many locals “whose heads are bigger than their hearts” scoff at the “foolish work in preparation for the holidays,” there is, indeed, “something vital in the custom.” It is “deep rooted in our foolish hearts,” he wrote, and “it means something real ... the outward expression of a genuine inward warmth of feeling.”
“So let us go on giving to our friends — giving to our enemies, even, if we can be such good Christians. If we have nothing else to give,” the editor closed, “we can give them the greeting of Merry Christmas!”
Just like that, Christmas 1903 came to a close. Fading alongside it was “William Christmasville,” whose byline never again graced the paper’s pages.
No matter — for the “intrepid reporter” had served his intended purpose, just as the editor had hoped.
Together, in the darkest days of the year, they helped their city believe.