History: Don’t mess with Santa Claus

Garry Brewer
GJ Free Press History Columnist
Santa Claus, photo cir. 1940, "Naughty or Nice List."
Submitted photo |

In this life there are three things you don’t mess with — the Easter Bunny, Thanksgiving turkeys and Santa Claus.

An episode of the old television show ”WKRP in Cincinnati” in 1978 featured free, live turkeys to be given away to the public at a shopping mall for Thanksgiving. A crowd of people gathered at the mall, with WKRP newsman Les Nessman on the scene, when the radio helicopter appeared and started to drop live turkeys from the sky. The turkeys dropped “like sacks of wet cement,” as Nessman described it, and those in the crowd ran for their lives.

Of course this was just a TV 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, McPhee 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 farmworkers. 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 no one was 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. For days afterward, McPhee confronted angry faces of men and shocked women staring at him in disappointment. There were 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.

McPhee was a good man who had a noble, unselfish idea, and he was heartsick that this good thing he planned to help Mesa 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, McPhee left his job as the editor of the Mesa Journal Tribune, and moved on with his life. He moved to Telluride and eventually became mayor. For the next 36 years, children who saw the fiasco in Mesa would stop by to see the man who convinced a whole generation of children that he killed Santa.

John McPhee passed away on May 27, 1968, in Telluride.

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.

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 locater of golden nuggets, truths and pearls of wisdom. He writes a history column for the Grand Junction Free Press, a sister publication of the Post Independent. Email Garry at

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