Historical Holiday Cheer- The St. Nicholas Girl

Xmas scene at home of poor
The Pensacola journal-December 15, 1922

Most people are familiar with Santa Claus, but do you know about his chipper young helper the St. Nicholas Girl? Anyone searching for Christmas content in Florida Chronicling America newspapers is sure to come across stories about the figure, or occasionally figures, who worked tirelessly leading up to Christmas to collect donations in order to provide poor children toys for Christmas. In this post we’ll provide a little more background information about the festive holiday woman.

Unlike many holiday traditions, we know the origin of the St. Nicholas Girl. She was the brainchild of Selene Armstrong, a journalist, who worked for The Washington Times in Washington D.C. In 1909, she published a front page article for the paper about Santa Claus’s visit to the newspaper office to accept the St. Nicholas Girl’s “aid in distributing presents.”[1] In an interview Santa Claus granted to the Times, he requests that “every man, woman, and child who has a toy, a flower, a bright silver quarter or dollar, or anything else that will make happy the heart of a child, to send it to the St. Nicholas Girl at the Washington Times office” for distribution to “homes, hospitals, and asylums” on Christmas Eve. Armstrong developed the reputation “all over the United States as ‘The Christmas Lady’” according to The Pensacola journal, and other cities were inspired to incorporate the St. Nicholas Girl into their local holiday celebrations.

Saint Nicholas Girls Christmas Tree
The Pensacola journal-December 3, 1916

Newspapers served as an excellent tool to endorse the activities of the St. Nicholas Girl and encourage the general public to support her holiday work. The Lakeland evening telegram promoted their version of the event in 1911, but that appears to be the only year they collected gifts in this manner. Historian Kevin M. McCarthy mentions that The Florida Times-Union supported the work of the St. Nicholas Girl in Jacksonville in 1912, saying “she encouraged the children to ask for what they really wanted, not so much what they needed” (49).  However, McCarthy doesn’t mention if Jacksonville continued to call on the St. Nicholas Girl in the years to follow. One thing we know for certain having spent time reading about this tradition in Chronicling America is that the city of Pensacola enthusiastically embraced the St. Nicholas Girl from 1913 through at least 1922.

Will Need $500 for Presents
The Pensacola journal-December 10, 1921

The St. Nicholas Girl is introduced on the society page of The Pensacola journal on November 13, 1913 with a narrative article from the point of view of a mother forced to answer the difficult question: “Does old Sandy Claus fill all the little children’s stockings?” Worried that her affirmative answer wasn’t quite truthful, the woman is reported to have gone to the newspaper office to ask them to enlist the help of the St. Nicholas Girl to provide gifts to all children in Pensacola. The next day, the society page reports the arrival of the St. Nicholas Girl “from toyland.” The article announces her intentions and in it she encourages all children, regardless of economic status, to write letters to Santa and send them to the newspaper so they won’t be missed.[2] For the rest of the 1913 holiday season, The Pensacola journal promoted their Christmas Doll and Toy Fund, touting the support and involvement of the St. Nicholas Girl.  Regular updates on fundraising and the gathering of toys were printed in the society section. After handing out the gifts collected through this initiative on Christmas Day, the paper declared the event a success and expressed desire to continue it in the future.

In the years that followed, multiple women served as the St. Nicholas Girl, and, at times, it even became a group effort. Through the end of our digitized run of The Pensacola journal, the work of the St. Nicholas Girl and reports of her benevolent deeds are a prominent features in the weeks leading up to Christmas.

Group Shot St. Nicholas Girls
The Pensacola journal-December 26, 1918

Footnotes: [1] While she is usually credited in our papers as Selene Armstrong, she also went by Selene Ayer Armstrong prior to marriage and either Selene Armstrong Harmon or Mrs. Dudley Harmon after marriage.

[2] It is difficult to tell, however, if the St. Nicholas Girl truly brought toys to all children. Given the fact that The Pensacola journal was a white newspaper in the South during Jim Crow, it typically made note when both African American and white people participated in something. Since the stories about the St. Nicholas Girl don’t bring up race, we believe it is worth mentioning that this may denote that only white children had access to this program.

Citations and Additional Sources:

Kevin M. McCarthy. Christmas in Florida. Sarasota, Florida: Pineapple Press, 2000.  

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