The search for ‘The Santa Claus Girl’
While searching through the digital archives of the Harlan Newspapers, I stumbled across a story from December 27, 1911.
“Santa Claus Girl makes good report”, the headline read, “Christmas cheer bestowed on one hundred and twenty-six Harlan children” underneath.
The article began by saying the week before Christmas, “The Santa Claus Girl” told her friends she wanted their help so no child in Harlan would be missed by Santa Claus. She was met with “indulgent smiles”.
“How many children do you think there are in Harlan who don’t have Christmas?”, The Santa Claus Girl wondered. She thought maybe fifty or sixty, and her friends smiles turned into laughter, but according to the article, they gave generously.
“Fast as the list of donations grew, the list of names grew even faster,” the article reads.
There were 126 children on The Santa Claus Girl’s list that first year, and she raised enough money not only to provide Christmas gifts for them, but also to have $104.30 left for the next year.
A year later, in the December 18, 1912 Harlan Tribune, it was reported the editor received a phone call from The Santa Claus Girl. “She has taken up her duties again, and with the help from generous friends, will dispense hospitality to the little folks of the town most cheerily,” the article stated.
The next day, a follow-up article revealed the name of Santa’s anonymous Harlan helper. “Miss Edith Lewis, having come back from New York, has concluded to take up the same sort of Christmas work as she engaged in last year. The work will be done under the name ‘The Santa Claus Girl’.”
That Christmas, Edith collected approximately $93, and gifts were given to 112 children. Each child received a suitable gift, a package of candy, an orange, and each family received a book. A considerable amount of clothing was also delivered. The Boy Scouts delivered the presents and the recipients “seemed to be very much pleased indeed.”
In January 1913, an article said, “Miss Lewis hinted in the future, other plans than her own would be more successful.” After that, there was no more mention of The Santa Claus Girl, or any explanation as to why Edith took on the role for two Christmas seasons.
So I began searching for information about Edith Lewis, and found some, but not a lot of insight. She was born in 1882, graduated from Harlan High School in 1900, then went on to attend both the University of Iowa and the University of Michigan. For a brief time, she taught English at a high school in Moline, IL. She was the head librarian for the very first Harlan Library in 1920. She was hospitalized for a brief time after she fell and broke her hip in 1947. She was a member of the Tuesday Bridge Club, and often earned prizes for being the high scorer. She passed away July 30, 1965 at the age of 82 and is buried in the Harlan Cemetery. Mrs. Hal Campbell of Harlan was the only surviving family member named in the obituary.
I searched diligently for more hours than I will ever admit. I contacted the Shelby County Historical Museum and the Harlan Public Library, both very valuable resources for the community. I shared what little I had found with two former newspaper staff members who are a wealth of information on the history of Harlan. No one recalled ever hearing of The Santa Claus Girl or Edith Lewis. As a last ditch effort, I posted an inquiry on the Harlan Newspaper’s Facebook page, asking for anyone having information about Edith to please contact the newspaper office. Last week, I received a call from Arizona.
Former Harlan resident Mardi (Andreasen) Allen, was contacted by a friend, who asked if she was related to Edith Lewis. She was. Her grandma, Ruth Campbell, was Edith’s sister.
Mardi wasn’t aware her “Aunt Edi” was once The Santa Claus Girl. Understandably, her memories of her great aunt were vague. By then, Edith was bedridden, and Mardi remembers she would sit at her aunt’s bedside when she visited her grandparents. They would play cards using the night stand as a table.
Mardi said she had a college graduation photo of Edith tucked away, and when she visits Harlan this summer, she will bring it to the Newspaper office. The information I had gathered on Edith Lewis,which had been taking up real estate in my mind and on my desk for the last few months, was sent to Mardi, so she could share the story of The Santa Claus Girl with her grandchildren, Edith’s last living family members.
It’s a story deserving to be told.
Because she saw a need and was willing to help fulfill it, Miss Edith Lewis made this part of the world better, even if it was in a small way.
Over a century later, one doesn’t have to search to find the same benevolence shown by The Santa Claus Girl.
This holiday season, Dena Briones and the staff at West Central Community Action (WCCA) processed 87 applications for families in need of assistance. With the help of the Shelby County Chamber of Commerce & Industry, church groups, businesses, organizations, and individuals, the agency provided Christmas cheer for friends and neighbors.
Volunteer Bell Ringers have stood at the local Salvation Army Red Kettle Donation Sites, and soon Marian Bretey, Linda Nelson and Ron French with Shelby County Community Outreach will distribute the funds donated by area shoppers.
The Harlan Community High School National Honor Society sponsored the Merrill Field Wreath project and decorated the fence line facing Elm Crest, spreading the spirit of the season to staff and residents.
Local churches and businesses “adopted” nursing home residents to ensure everyone is remembered with a holiday gift.
There is always a neighbor in need of a helping hand, and most of the time, there is always a neighbor extending one. School groups, churches, 4-H Clubs, Scouts, book clubs, and countless more do small things in great ways, not just during the holiday season, but throughout the year.
This kindness and generosity may not make the news or be remembered centuries later, but at that particular moment, it is the greatest gift ever received.
And within it, the spirit of The Santa Claus Girl is found.