Arlene Powe’s three sons are a little big to sit on Santa’s knee but, every December, she still makes them pose for a photo with the season’s standard-bearer.
“This coming year I’ll have 35 Santa pictures,” the 66-year-old says.
The tradition started when Powe first herded her young boys to the Frederick and Nelson in Bellevue in the 1980s. She worked there selling bedding and china. Around the holidays, customers could also buy photos of their children meeting Santa, who set up his workshop among the store’s wares.
Story goes that Frederick and Nelson’s downtown Seattle flagship was the proverbial nativity of Santa photos. While Claus has been coming down department store chimneys since at least 1890, it wasn’t until 1943 that Seattle Post-Intelligencer photographer Arthur French proposed families leave with a keepsake.
After the iconic store shuttered in 1992, the twinkle-eyed Santas hired by Arthur and Associates, the photography company French founded, started appearing at other Seattle retailers like the Bon Marché. Powe’s kids recognized their Frederick and Nelson Santa in a Lake Forest Park store, and they resumed their ritual there.
But as corporations acquired many of the area’s locally owned department stores, they consolidated their Santa photo service providers, and Arthur and Associates lost gigs to national companies, says Hillard Viydo, whose family ran the business after French died in 1962.
“It was all handled out of Timbuktu,” he says, “or Florida, or Texas.”
In 2015, for the first time, his Ballard business had no Santa in downtown Seattle at all.
Santa Russ, who has worked for Arthur and Associates for two decades, laments the less-dedicated replacements. “A company will hire a Santa that’s 18, 19 years old,” says Russ (né Russell Long), a retired Microsoft employee who drives a red car, lives in a red house, and wears red shirts year round to stay in character. “He has to wear a fake beard, and has no experience, and sits there half asleep.”
Maybe that’s because at least one national company that runs Santa photos in a major Seattle store pays $15 an hour less than any self-respecting Santa would accept for a mall job, says Trever Waltos, cochair of NORPAC, an organization for Pacific Northwest Santas. Rumor has it the 10-hour shifts come with insufficient breaks, too.
The men Viydo hires take their jobs as Father Christmas seriously. “Santas come to us knowing that they’re Santa Claus,” he says. Several stores that passed over Arthur and Associates for cheaper companies have come back, Viydo says, “because the personal touch was not there.” This year, he’s dispatching his Santas to University Village, among other malls.
For Kris Kringle purists, pulling on the red suit is akin to a Hippocratic Oath. NORPAC members solemnly swear to uphold the principles of their own pledge, “to do the right thing and follow all the beliefs going back to St. Nicholas,” Santa Russ says.
They also believe that anyone—regardless of age, size, or facial hair—can be Claus if he embodies the Christmas spirit. Of course, there’s only one real Santa in this legion of cheer, Russ says. “We just don’t know which one it is.”