N.B.'s first Santa Claus? 90 years ago, province said goodbye to Charles Sampson

Who has a long beard, visits children at Christmas and is driven around by a team of reindeer?

If you lived in Fredericton in the late 19th century, the answer to that question would be Charles A. Sampson.

He served as the secretary of school trustees, sat on the board of the Victoria Hospital and was once the head of Fredericton's chapter of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows.

But he may also have been the province's first Santa Claus, something not well known in the province's history.

Because of all the other things he did in his life "this really disappeared," said local historian Koral Lavorgna.

Trader beginnings

Sampson was born in 1840 in St. Andrews, N.B., but spent most of his life in Fredericton.

He originally worked as a trader, setting up routes between Grand Falls and Boston.

It was while in Boston that Sampson met a French candy maker, hired them and opened a confectionery store in Fredericton.

The location of the shop was listed as being "across from the barracks" on Queen Street.

Provincial Archives of New Brunswick

This is where Sampson's connection to Santa Claus began.

Lavorgna said Sampson was a marketing genius and was always looking at a way to cross-promote.

For example, he sold a line of candy packaged using train schedules so people who bought the product would know when their train was due to arrive.

Sampson saw the appeal of Christmas and Santa as a business strategy early on. It was at a time when the holiday was far less commercial.

"Christmas was a lot more of a casual affair," said Lavorgna.

Santa's agent

Sampson started advertising his link to "Santa Claus" in an advertisement in the New Brunswick Reporter in 1867.

"Santa Claus has appointed Charles A. Sampson, confectioner, agent for the sale of all sorts of fancy confectionery for the holiday season," read Sampson's Colonial Farmer ad.

Sampson would advertise as the agent for Santa Claus at "Santa Claus Station" between 1867 and 1876.

He would regularly advertise in the New Brunswick Reporter and the Fredericton Advertiser, but his commitment to Santa Claus would grow.

'New and novel'

Starting in 1872, Sampson began advertising an "entirely new and novel arrangement." It was home delivery by Santa Claus.

"Any child whose parent had purchased candy or toys … at his store to be put in stockings, Charles Sampson would deliver those," said Lavorgna

Saint John Free Public Library

Despite modern interpretations of Santa Claus as a jolly, elderly man, Sampson felt the need to soothe parental fears about who would be delivering the candy.

"As he is a jovial, pleasant looking old man, there is no danger of the children being frightened on beholding his lovely countenance," said Sampson's ad.

"His perambulation through the city will be assisted by a splendid span of reindeers or horses attached to a cab, from which he will signal his arrival at each house by a few notes on his well worn buffalo horn." 

Expansion and snowballs

He would continue the practice of dressing up as Santa Claus and delivering his candy to children, even travelling to Marysville, Devon and other communities, now part of the city's north side.

"Santa Claus en route via Gibson and Saint Mary's," said a 1874 advertisement.

By this time it appears Sampson expanded his service, not only delivering his candy, but any packages bought at city merchants "at the rate of 10 cents per package, whether it be a box of pills or a barrel of flour."

But not everyone was a big of fan of Santa Claus and Sampson had a fair amount of abuse hurled his way.

Provincial Archives of New Brunswick

Every year he was pelted by snowballs thrown by older boys.

Lavorgna said this was a major problem in the city throughout the 19th century and boys would often pelt prominent individuals with snowballs.

But Sampson fought back.

"He actually put in his newspaper advertisements that … should any bad boys throw snowballs at him, there were two options," Lavorgna said. "He would either ... hit them with his whip, cutting them awfully … or the police would become involved and they would be put in prison."

Too much success

Unfortunately, for the children of Fredericton, the good times didn't last long.

Sampson only kept his Santa gig for a few years before informing parents that a snowstorm at Santa's Greenland home would keep the jolly gift-giver from making appearances that year.

Lavorgna has a more plausible explanation.

"I think it was too much of a good thing," said Lavorgna.

"He had taken on far too much. And I think it was that he was just too successful and he had too many people to reach in one evening."

Sampson kept his candy store open until 1877. He then became the secretary of school trustees in the city, a position he held for about 40 years.

When Sampson died in 1929 at the age of 90, he was called Fredericton's grand old man by local media. But his brief tenure as Santa Claus had been forgotten by that point.

Lavorgna said she always gets a positive reaction when she tells the story.

"People are warmed by it," said Lavorgna. 

"It's really a cute story. And people are startled that it's a real story, that this isn't actually something that has been fictionalized or fabricated or exaggerated. And the fact that no one seems to know about it is also quite fascinating."