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Barbara Shelly, Kansas City, Mo., column -- Born in Philly, Dec. 25, 1917: Santa Klaus

By Barbara Shelly KANSAS CITY, Mo. --- I suppose many families claim bragging rights to a Christmas story. This is mine, and while some of the details have grown fuzzy over the years, what I tell you is the truth as I know it. It began with a Ger...

By Barbara Shelly

KANSAS CITY, Mo. --- I suppose many families claim bragging rights to a Christmas story. This is mine, and while some of the details have grown fuzzy over the years, what I tell you is the truth as I know it.

It began with a German family immigrating to America in the early 1900s and settling in Philadelphia. Among the flock was a child named Paul Max Klaus.

Paul learned a baker's trade and took a job in Atlantic City, N.J., back when that seaside resort still had charm. There, he fell in love with Ethel Rhine, a young woman from a small Pennsylvania town, who also had come seeking work.

Paul and Ethel married. My future grandparents good-naturedly fended off the jokes that came with being Mr. and Mrs. Klaus.

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And that would have been the end of the story had not their firstborn child, a boy, arrived in a Philadelphia hospital in 1917 smack-dab on Christmas morning.

Here's where things get a little confusing.

Everyone agrees, and newspapers reported years later, that the attending physician, H.W. Lambert, was delighted at the coincidence.

"You should name him Santa Klaus," he told the young parents.

My grandmother, for the rest of her 104 years, insisted they didn't. No, she told anyone who bothered to ask, they named the child Paul, just as they would have if he had been born on any of the other 364 days of the year.

But a legend took hold in the family that had Ethel and Paul christening the first of their five children Santa Paul Klaus.

What's certain is that throughout his childhood and school years, which were spent in Philadelphia, New Jersey and a couple of eastern Pennsylvania towns, the boy was called Paul. That, no doubt, was a good thing.

But sometime in his early 20s, Paul Klaus became, officially, Santa Paul Klaus. His driver's license and other official documents carried that name, and he introduced himself as such.

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And then, when the occasion was right, Santa Paul Klaus became Santa Claus.

Newspaper clippings from the time, lovingly saved by Paul's mother, show him in the quintessential red costume and beard, children on his lap. "The REAL Santa Claus," the headlines proclaimed.

He made radio appearances and accompanied society ladies on fund-raising ventures.

When he wasn't playing Santa, the young man called Santa followed in his father's footsteps and went into the restaurant business in Pottstown, Pa.

He married a woman named Dorothy and became the father of a little girl, named, of course, Sandy.

Once, at the height of the Christmas season, he lost a bag containing $800 in receipts from the restaurant. Three honest youths found it and returned it. Santa Klaus rewarded them with $15 each, an impressive sum for the day.

"Yes, it was literally, as well as figuratively, Santa Klaus who practically dropped the money into the boys' lap," reported the local newspaper.

I wish I could tell you that my uncle's reign as Santa continued through the years. But that was not to be. He fell ill in his late 20s and died at age 30 of a brain tumor.

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By then, there was no confusion. He was buried as Santa Paul Klaus.

And so, he lives now in the family lore. And every Christmas we boast of our blood ties to the REAL Santa Claus.

Shelly writes for the Kansas City Star, where this column appeared earlier this week.

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