“Hey, Ithaca! Santa is Here!” – Santa Claus in Ithaca, 1946-1970

Above Top to bottom: Santa arrives in Ithaca in early December 1949; In 1964, Santa came into Ithaca courtesy of the Ithaca Fire Department: By the end of the 1960s, children stood in lines several blocks long in downtown Ithaca, just to visit with St. Nick.

Whether he flew in by airplane, arrived by taxi, or was pulled by reindeer, the arrival of Santa Claus in Ithaca has a vivid history, especially for Ithaca’s baby boomers.

In December 1946, Santa made his appearance in Ithaca by arriving at Johnson’s airport along with nine other planes that accompanied him.  Thousands of people soon lined up in downtown Ithaca and watched the Ithaca High School band lead Santa to the village hall. For this occasion, the Ithaca Chamber of Commerce provided 1300 sacks of candy and nuts to children. As an incentive, prizes totaling $25 could be found inside some of the sacks. During his visit, Santa spent time receiving letters from children, and some ended up in the Gratiot County Herald.

One year later, on December 6, 1947, Santa chose to parachute into Ithaca. Santa assured Warren Larry, chairman of Christmas activities in Ithaca, that Old St. Nick would be okay. He had practiced his landing drops and planned to touch down in front of the village hall. However, to be safe, the Ithaca Fire Department stood by to make sure Santa did not get hung up in a tree. Santa made the drop safely into Ithaca and then came the official turning on the business section’s lights. Christmas 1947 was also the first year that a contest for the best-decorated home took place in Ithaca. The theme that Christmas was “A wreath on every door and a tree in every window.”

The official lighting of the Gratiot County Courthouse coincided with Santa’s arrival in Ithaca that year. Strings of lights from the top of the building extended down to Center Street, creating a “blanket-like effect.”  Specially designed wreaths all appeared on the light poles in the downtown area.  It was also the first Christmas that people could see Santa and his sleigh on top of the courthouse.

Starting in 1949, Santa appeared in Ithaca each Saturday in December.  To prepare for his arrival on that first Saturday, he sent a telegram from his workshop to the Gratiot County Herald announcing his arrival time. This year Santa flew in a plane over Ithaca and then came into town via taxi after landing at the airport. It was also the first Christmas in Ithaca where new plastic street decorations appeared upon all the downtown light posts.

Other changes began taking place with Santa’s arrival in Ithaca.  Before he showed up on November 26, 1955, the Ithaca Ministerial Association conducted a downtown Ithaca program to stress the religious aspects of Christmas. This year, Santa arrived in Ithaca aboard a specially designed wagon, carrying candy and nuts for the children. A new tradition also started when Mrs. Ethel Gibbs, owner of the Ideal Theatre, offered free matinee movies for children each Saturday in December. Gibbs continued to provide free matinees during the Christmas season for several years to come.

By this time, more and more letters to Santa poured into the Gratiot County Herald offices. One picture showed Santa trying to sort through many letters that area children sent to him. Despite a very blustery and windy winter day in early December 1959, children still turned out in the wild weather to hand letters to Santa. This time he stood behind a winter snow fence and greeted the children. Afterward, the Ithaca Veterans of Foreign Wars Post invited 150 young guests to the high school gym to receive candy, cake, ice cream, gifts, and clothing donations. Morrison’s Shoe Store donated 80 pairs of new shoes for the children who attended the event.

Another decade did not slow down Santa. During Christmas season 1960, teacher Randall Johnson and his high school shop class built a new throne for the courthouse lawn’s northwest corner. The throne measured eight feet tall and sat on a decorated platform. For his first appearance, a public address system allowed people to hear the conversations between Santa and those children who sat on his lap. An estimated 600 children came to Ithaca that night to see Santa. Afterward, someone threw a ceremonial switch, and the lights in downtown Ithaca came alive with the Christmas spirit. During that December,  merchants held a “Price is Right Contest,” which gave away over $500 worth of gifts in Kernen’s Department Store window to the person who could guess their total price. John Smolka won the contest by guessing the exact retail total of $530.34. The Ithaca Chamber of Commerce stated that over 3,000 entries took place.

Going o into the 1960s, more Ithaca residents participated in events with Santa’s arrival and the start of the Christmas season. The Ithaca Jaycee Lighting Contest awarded a $25 Savings Bond to the first place winner.  In 1962, Mr. and Mrs. Edwin McGillis won the contest after cutting out and painting over twenty figures for the Nativity scene in front of their home.

A year later, in 1961, people started to become aware of the work of Glen Rhines, building superintendent at the courthouse, who continued the Ithaca Christmas tradition each year with his work. For the next few Christmases, one could see Santa atop the Gratiot County Courthouse, along with his sleigh, decorated Christmas trees, and elves. A Nativity scene sat in front of the courthouse. Each year, Rhines added to the year’s previous display. Rhines’ work made the Gratiot County Court House one of the most important places to see in the county when it was lit up in the evenings.

It was also in the mid-1960s that Santa started a tradition of arriving in town aboard a sleigh pulled by Hollis Cooper’s ponies.  Sometimes the ponies wore antlers.  

However Santa arrived in Ithaca, it seemed that the children in town kept turning out in larger numbers. By the end of the 1960s, well over 1,000 children turned out to greet Santa on his first trip to town. It now became common to see lines of children measuring over two blocks long, each with their desire to tell Santa what they hoped he would bring them for Christmas.

For many children born after World War II, the arrival of Santa Claus in Ithaca was an essential part of the Christmas season.

Copyright 2020 James M Goodspeed

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