Santa is coming to Kawartha Lakes

A history of Saint Nick in our area

By Ian McKechnie

Stewart Stainton as Santa Claus with his granddaughter, Ana. Photo courtesy of Martha Stainton.

The rituals have scarcely changed over the years. Families bundled up in scarves and mittens make their way downtown to watch a parade in which the most distinguished participant brings up the rear, serenaded by the strains of festive music. A few weeks later, these same families may stroll into a shopping mall where this same jovial character sits amid a whimsical winter wonderland, waiting to welcome children onto his knee for photos.

Santa Claus, as this personage is known, has long been a fixture of the December holiday season. But who is Santa? Who was Santa?

For folklorists and historians, that question can be answered by going all the way back to a fourth century Greek bishop named Nicholas, who earned a reputation for his generosity. Stories about St. Nicholas circulated throughout Europe in the centuries that followed and were brought to North America by Dutch and English settlers. Contemporary images of Santa date to the 19thcentury, and the figure most of us envision when we think of Santa Claus owes much to American artist Haddon Sundblom, whose depiction of the bearded gift-giver was used to advertise Coca-Cola products in the 1930s.

That answers the question about Santa’s origins. But who was Santa in this community?

A character named Curly MacMillan took on the role at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Lindsay during the holiday season of 1895, when the Sunday school organized a Christmas tea and concert. When Santa put in his appearance, said the Canadian Post in its reportage of the occasion, “the scene of gaiety and happiness that followed (was) indescribable, but when it was known that some 300 scholars received presents, one can imagine the excitement and turmoil. Santa Claus proved himself an old professional, and was well up to the mark.” Other parishioners who played Santa Claus over the years included Carl Scott and Dan McQuarrie; the Rev. Orville Locke, who served as minister from 1960 through 1978, also donned the Santa suit for many a Christmas party.

Schools, too, received annual visits from Santa Claus. In 1910, Hartley-area students waited with bated breath during that year’s Christmas concert as a succession of “telegrams” arrived from Santa announcing his impending arrival. As the evening wrapped up, bells were heard outside the schoolhouse followed by a loud knocking at the door, at which point Santa Claus made a grand entrance.

“After greeting the children and telling of his journey he proceeded with the task of distributing the presents,” wrote the Hartley correspondent in the Dec. 29, 1910, issue of the Watchman-Warder. “Some (children) desired to go to see his reindeer across in the shed,” reports the unnamed correspondent, “but on their arrival found to their dismay that (they) had gone.”

Quite apart from these visits to churches and schools, Santa’s most prominent public appearance in the community has been during the annual Lindsay Santa Claus parade. Paul Skipworth played the part for 27 years. For many years, the Lindsay Chamber of Commerce arranged for Santa to pay a visit to the Ross Memorial Hospital following the parade, where he would distribute gifts to patients young and old.

“I remember seeing one little baby of about three years old who was really sick,” recalls Skipworth. “After I was all through, he sat on my lap and pulled on my beard!” Skipworth’s wife made his Santa suit, which for years endured the rain or snow so typical of Santa Claus parades.

Sharing Santa’s Lindsay-based duties with Paul Skipworth was the late Stewart Stainton (1927-2021). While he wasn’t in the parade, Stainton’s Santa Claus brought smiles to the faces of many children and adults for half a century. “He did it faithfully every year,” remembers his daughter, Martha Stainton. What began as a means of entertaining colleagues at a Fenelon Falls Secondary School staff party evolved into annual visits to local homes and classrooms.

“He would get calls from families, and some nights he would be out for three hours,” Martha recalls. “Everyone was just so happy to see him.” (Stainton was once recruited to be a mall Santa, Martha observes, but didn’t find that role to be as personal or interactive.) “When he decided to retire, in 2018, he wanted to pass on his legacy,” Martha says. A personal support worker at Adelaide Place, where Stainton lived for the last decade of his life, took up the reins and portrays Santa at the retirement home to this day.

Though “a visit from St. Nicholas” — to quote the original title of ’Twas The Night Before Christmas — has warmed the hearts of many people over the years, Santa Claus has not always manifested himself in person. Started in 1911 by Allan Gillies, a local newspaperman, and long spearheaded by Thomas H. Stinson, M.P., the Santa Claus Stocking Fund brightened many a family’s Christmas morning with a hamper assembled and delivered by volunteers. Although the Santa Claus Stocking Fund wrapped up operations in 2019, the spirit of Santa Claus continues to show itself in the good works carried on by other charitable agencies in Kawartha Lakes. From a fourth century bishop to 21st century volunteers, Santa Claus will continue to remind us that “it is more blessed to give than to receive.”

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