Today, Memphians have several beloved ways to celebrate the holiday season, from Starry Nights, Zoo Lights, and Holiday Wonders at the Garden, to visiting Santa at Collierville Town Square, the Enchanted Forest, or the Bass Pro Shop at the Pyramid.
What people don’t do is hang out in Downtown’s Court Square. But for decades, Court Square was the place for Memphians* to be during the winter holidays.
*Historical Note: Memphis was a heavily segregated city under Jim Crow laws that were in place from the 1890s through the 1960s. This formal system of racial separation affected almost all aspects of everyday life, including access to public parks and celebrations. For decades the events mentioned in this article took place in a segregated park that was set aside for white Memphians, with occasional exceptions made on specially designated days for Black Memphians.
In 1913, the Christmas Tree Club and the Jovian League of electricians decorated a giant tree in Court Square with a star atop to “prove a beacon star of hope to the homeless or friendless who may visit Court Square during Christmas week.” The electric lights blazed until midnight, and visitors could hear music or religious programs each night.
On Christmas night, children were given candies and fruit and received gifts from Santa. On December 26, Black children were allowed into the park to enjoy the tree for one night. The tree came back from 1914-1916. The food and toy giveaway was especially needed in 1913-4 due to the severe economic recession. By 1915, the economy was doing better, so the Jovians decided against the giveaways. The community tree went away with the escalation of World War I.
In 1921, Louis DeSaussure, the city’s superintendent of recreation, brought the community Christmas tree and carol singing back to Court Square, but the park’s winter festivities did not return in full force until 1927.
That year, children, marching bands, and the fire and police departments met Santa at Grand Central Station and paraded him to Court Square where he received children. The Commercial Appeal reported that an Alaskan Native family–identified as Lotaluk, Trixie Lotaluk, and Jimmy Ahkla–would be in an igloo situated next to a pen with six of Santa’s reindeer. The paper followed up by noting their big hut was made “not of ice, as are the ones in the frozen northland–but as nearly like it as the ingenuity of Memphis artisans can make it.”
Children were urged to donate toys and clothes for the Christmas committee to give out to poorer citizens.
The Great Depression didn’t stop Santa’s Court Square visits or the lavish Spirit of Christmas parades. Mike Abt began his long career as float designer for the holiday parades in 1931. The 1933 Christmas parade featured a National Recovery Administration float in the shape of a blue eagle with Santa riding atop its head. The Christmas committee upped the ante in 1934, adding paper mache angels atop platforms along “Christmas Row” (Main Street) that sang recorded carols. They also added a massive Santa, designed by Abt, to Court Square in 1934. Conflicting reports over the years note that Santa was somewhere between 25 and 50 feet tall. Whatever the actual height, the adjectives “world’s largest” were liberally used.
The statue came to life twice a day as children told their wishes to a microphone and received replies over a speaker. Local actor Arch League stood inside the figure and spoke to children until he retired in 1940 (which caused many to protest that Santa’s voice wasn’t the same). Older kids used the giant Santa for different purposes. One of the hazing rites of the high school sorority Phi Sigma was to pray to Santa for a Shirley Temple Doll, as Jane Evans was reported doing in 1935.
Mayor Watkins Overton gave Santa a key to the city in 1936, which he received while riding on an illuminated golden sleigh. That year, the parade floats required over 4,000 individuals working from June through November to create the spectacle.
Spirit of Christmas, Inc., the organizers of Downtown’s Christmas extravaganza, retired the “world’s largest” Santa in 1939. His Court Square replacement was a 60 feet wide, 50 feet deep, 25 feet tall electric Christmas scene built by Coca-Cola. A mechanized Santa rode from the mouth of an ice cave on a sleigh drawn by eight reindeer.
Court Square was also the main location for The Commercial Appeal and the American Legion’s Mile-O-Dimes booth to raise money for Christmas grocery baskets to be distributed throughout the city on Christmas Eve. They urged people to “drop your dime and bring Christmas to some poor youngster,” a fundraising tradition that continued for decades. The booth got its start at the corner of North Main and Whisky Chute Alley (now Park Lane), directly across from the Square.
Mechanized Santa only lasted one year and was replaced in 1940 by a house with an “American living room, complete with fireplace, family Christmas tree, and all the fixin’s.” Santa was available to meet with kids until Christmas Eve.
The parade continued in 1941, despite wartime black out restrictions that kept storefronts dark. From 1942 to 1944 a “Victory House,” for selling war bonds and stamps, stood in the park instead of Santa’s abode. Not one to stay away for long, Santa and his house, again provided by the Coca-Cola Bottling Company, were back in Court Square by 1946. The annual parade resumed in 1948.
In 1950, the Park Commission continued to give Coca-Cola permission to set up Santa Claus in Court Square and Handy Park. Throughout the decade, tens of thousands of children visited Santa’s colorful cottage and received Coke keychains as parting gifts.
The Spirit of Christmas parade continued to be held down Main Street as it had in prior decades, adding more pop culture elements, including Sivad and Looney Tunes characters in 1963. The last Spirit of Christmas Parade held Downtown and routed through Court Square was held in 1969.
In 1970, the organizers announced that the parade cost too much money. Instead, Santa landed on a helicopter at the Fairgrounds. The group Merry Christmas Memphis resuscitated the Christmas parade in Overton Square in 1976 for a 12-year period before moving it back downtown in 1988, though the new route bypassed Court Square entirely.
Charlie Vargos led the fundraising efforts to bring Santa House back to Court Square in 1989. The gazebo was decorated with scenes from Santa’s workshops. Like decades past, the Court Square Santa knew many details about the children who had been waiting in line, including their names, pets, and what they wanted for Christmas. The next year, Santa House was back, but Santa was not in residence. Organizers said the turnout was too low.
The last two months of the year are full of opportunities to see parades, community Christmas trees, and light displays. Court Square may no longer be Santa’s Memphis home, but the legacy of those Christmases past live in the traditions Memphians keep alive today.
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Caroline Mitchell Carrico is a native Memphian and, as a historian by training, she enjoys researching the city’s past and pulling it into the present. When she isn’t reading and writing, she can often be found cheering on her kids’ soccer teams.