It’s Christmastime. Trees are up, stockings are hung, and you’ve likely seen Santa Claus a dozen or so times already.
While many Christmas traditions have ancient roots, Christmas culture as we know it today is a modern creation, and most of that genesis happened in New York City a century ago.
My guest today on the show wrote a book that explores the development of Christmas in New York City by looking at a 1920s con man who used the story of Santa Claus to swindle hundreds of thousands of dollars from generous New Yorkers. His name is Alex Palmer and his book is The Santa Claus Man: The Rise and Fall of a Jazz Age Con Man and the Invention of Christmas in New York.
Today on the podcast Alex and I discuss what Christmas was like before the 19th century and the famous New Yorkers who helped turned Christmas into what it is today. Against that backdrop we discuss the life and times of John Gluck, a PR man who started an organization that answered letters written to Santa Claus, but in the process lined his pockets with hundreds of thousands of dollars. It’s also a story that involves a bitter rivalry between the Boy Scouts of America and another scouting organization that consisted of rifle-toting 12-year-olds.
You don’t want to miss this holiday edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. It’s going to give you lots of fodder to talk about at Christmas dinner.
- How Alex discovered that he was related to a Jazz Age con man
- The creation of the modern Santa Claus in New York City
- How writing letters to Santa Claus began
- The rowdy, drunken, anarchic festival that Christmas in America was before the 19th century
- The invention of the Christmas tree lot in the 1850s in New York City
- How the F. W. Woolworth Company democratized Christmas decorations
- What happened to letters to Santa that were sent through the post office
- Why John Gluck started the Santa Claus Association
- How the Santa Claus Association worked
- How Gluck drummed up support for the Santa Claus Association
- How Gluck used the Boys Scouts of America to con New Yorkers out of their money
- The bitter rivalry between the Boy Scouts of America and the United States Boy Scout
- How the United States Boy Scout sewed the seeds of Gluck’s self-destruction
- How Gluck made money from the Santa Claus Association
- How charity worked changed in the early 20th century
- How much money Gluck made during his con
- How Gluck inspired the U.S. Postal Service’s Operation Santa initiative
- And much more!
Resources/Studies/People Mentioned in Podcast
- St. Nicholas
- Washington Irving
- The History of New York by Washington Irving
- John Pintard
- St. Nicholas Day
- Twas the Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore
- Thomas Nast
- Thomas Nast’s version of Santa Claus
- F. W. Woolworth Company
- The Santa Claus Association
- The United States Boy Scout
- Operation Santa
Like I said in the podcast, The Santa Claus Man is one of the funnest history books I’ve read in a long time. It’s filled with tons of interesting and forgotten parts of American popular culture. This is a great book to read while on Christmas break. You’ll gain some new insights and appreciation about how we celebrate Christmas today.
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And thanks to Creative Audio Lab in Tulsa, OK for editing our podcast!
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