History: Don’t mess with Santa Claus
GJ History Columnist
In this life there are three things you don’t mess with — the Easter Bunny, Thanksgiving turkeys and Santa Claus.
There was an episode many might remember of a television show named ”WKRP in Cincinnati” dated 1978, where free, live turkeys were to be given away to the public at a shopping mall for Thanksgiving. A crowd of people gathered at the mall, where a newsman was taking comments from the people waiting for their turkeys, when the radio helicopter appeared and started to drop live turkeys from the sky. Not knowing that turkeys could not fly, the turkeys dropped like sacks of wet cement and the crowd ran for their lives …
Of course this never happened as it was just a television show, but it had a bit of real history to it. Some said it was based on a real story from December 1932 in Mesa, Arizona, when a newspaper editor named John McPhee came up with a marketing idea to have someone dress up as Santa Claus and parachute into an open field outside of town and then ride into town to greet the public. The event was played up in the local newspaper, and the public was invited to watch the fake Santa Claus jump from a plane.
John McPhee had the plans all worked out, a pilot was obtained, and a circus daredevil was hired to walk out on the wing of a plane dressed as Santa and jump to a field below.
The day of the event arrived and a large crowd of townspeople, including parents with their excited children, were waiting. John went to the airport to find that the pilot was ready, but his daredevil Santa had been drinking a little too much Christmas cheer and was not able to perform. McPhee quickly came up with a plan B and went to a local clothing store and borrowed a mannequin, dressed it up as Santa Claus and gave it to the pilot with a parachute.
The pilot was instructed to buzz the field outside of town where the crowd of townspeople was waiting for Santa to jump. The idea was that once the dummy Santa landed John would run and put on the suit and then ride into town as Santa Claus, handing out candy and nuts to the children.
You might ask what could possibly go wrong when you mess around with the institution of Santa Claus?
Maybe the “real” Santa was watching because when the dummy Santa was dropped from the plane at 3,000 feet, the parachute didn’t open and the dummy fell to earth like a rock.
In fact the dummy hit the wrong field, surprising three farm workers. When they saw the red-suited Santa hit the ground they ran as fast as they could right into a barbed wire fence, and they tore the fence down in their effort to get out of the field.
Back where the crowd was standing, all — including the moms, dads and horrified children — stood transfixed, not believing their eyes. After a few moments parents swept up their children, and the crowd quickly headed back to their homes and businesses. It was so shocking one woman went into labor.
McPhee tried to save the day by having someone dress up as Santa for the parade that was to follow the jump, but by the time he and the live Santa got to town there was no one on the streets to watch a parade. From behind closed doors they could hear the wails of heartbroken children fearing that Santa Claus had been killed and for days afterward there were angry faces of men and shocked women staring at him in disappointment. There were even rumblings of violence and talk that he, “The Man who Killed Santa,” should make himself invisible until after Christmas. And that’s just what John McPhee did, packing up and leaving town for a few days.
John was a good man who had a noble, unselfish idea, and he was heart-sick that this good thing he planned to help his city of Mesa, Arizona, had gone badly. Actually in the end it did help the local merchants because the parents bought more presents to help ease their children’s sorrow of seeing Santa fall from 3,000 feet like a meteor.
Shortly after John McPhee left his job as the editor of the Mesa Journal Tribune, and moved on with his life. But from that time in 1932 in Arizona and on to Telluride, Colorado, where John had moved and became mayor, for the next 36 years children who saw the event would stop in town to see the man who convinced a whole generation of children in Mesa, Arizona, that he killed Santa.
John McPhee passed away on May 27, 1968, in Telluride, Colorado.
The real Santa Claus at the North Pole might not have liked the idea of someone using a plane instead of a sleigh and reindeer to give children presents. So the moral of this story is “Don’t mess with Santa Claus,” and remember he is always watching to see if we are naughty or nice.
Have a Merry Christmas and Happy Holiday!
Photos: Museum of Western Colorado, Loyd Files Room, Michael Menard: The Daily Sentinel: Snap Photo: Marie Tipping: The Arizona Publisher: The Republic, Jay Marks: Tucson Citizen Paul Allen: Pina County Library:
Garry Brewer is storyteller of the tribe; finder of odd knowledge and uninteresting items; a bore to his grandchildren; a pain to his wife on spelling; but a locator of golden nuggets, truths and pearls of wisdom. Email Garry at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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