Ho Ho How

A (Seattle) Christmas Story: The Origins of the Santa Photo

In 1943, a Seattle photographer had the idea to take photos of kids with the big guy. But as retail stores close, will the tradition die?

By Marisa Comeau-Kerege December 10, 2019

An archetypal Santa photo from Arthur and Associates, the inventor of the tradition. 

In malls across the country families queue up, dressed to the nines in whatever holiday garb parents deemed worthy this year—matching sweaters with snowflakes and reindeer, flannels of red and green. Children, desperate to get what they want under the tree, climb atop a velvet-clad knee.

'Tis the season to get your annual photo with Santa Claus.

Santa pictures, in fact, began in Seattle 75 years ago this month. In 1943, downtown's erstwhile Frederick and Nelson department store (now the Nordstrom building) moved the meet-and-greet with Santa to the window displays. Arthur French, ironically nicknamed “Happy” for his grumpy demeanor, figured that families should be able to take these memories home with a photo. So the next year, French, a Seattle Post-Intelligencer staff photographer, took a few weeks leave and set up shop with his newly founded Arthur and Associates Photography company in the storefront. He charged a buck per snapshot and earned $10,000 in one month (what he'd make the whole year at the P-I). Thus the beginning of a holiday tradition that would take off in malls everywhere.

French ran the company until his death in 1962. His widow, Cherie, wanted the tradition to continue, so she passed the business on to the couple responsible for developing the photos: the Viydos, whose son and grandson still run the business.

But brick-and-mortar shopping centers as cultural hubs is falling away (a shift led by, ahem, another Seattle company). Macy's downtown currently hosts Santaland, but the store will permanently close in February. So what does the future of this holiday-must look like?

Some in the industry hold out hope that it’s safe. “That tradition doesn't go away... Santa isn't going away,” says Olin Viydo, the grandson and vice president of Arthur and Associates, now the oldest Santa photo company in the country. Olin believes that just as the industry has adapted to digital photography, the physical location is something they’ll find a way to work around. “Almost the entire time we've existed...we've never had to actually place an ad for a Santa,” says Olin. “Santas find us.” The same, it seems, goes for those seeking a photo.

Trever Waltos, a professional Santa and chairman of the NORPAC Santas, a nonprofit social club for Mr. Clauses of the Pacific Northwest, can see the changes in the Christmas photo business, but also seems optimistic about what will come from the evolving retail landscape.

According to Waltos, many Santas now work with photographers and set up studio time for kids and families to book 15- to 30-minute time slots for candid photos with Jolly Old Saint Nick. Waltos also cites many new events around town like T-Mobile Park’s Enchant Christmas, where you can see Santa and get that photo, while also shopping through a wintery village, strolling through a light maze, or testing your skills on the ice rink. “I’d say it's more of an experience as opposed to just, say cheese and smile,” Waltos says.

How this industry will evolve with the changing landscape remains to be seen.

“You know, regardless of what sort of space he occupies physically, and where that might be,” Viydo says, “families, especially here in Seattle, seek out Santa.”

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