ALAN HOLMAN: Santa goes missing in Coleman

Santa goes missing in Coleman

Published on December 17, 2016

Roxann Poirier, manager of the Summerside Farmers’ Market, tells Santa Claus her Christmas wish list, in this 2015 file photo, in the chair that he had used for decades at the old Holman’s Department Store’s Toy Land. The chair, after an almost 30-year absence, returned to the Holman Building for the holidays last year in Summerside.

©TC Media file photo/Nancy MacPhee

Santa Claus is a figment of your imagination. One hundred years ago there were few on the Island more imaginative than J. LeRoy Holman. He was one of two sons who had taken over their father’s retail business, R.T. Holman Ltd. in Summerside.

One of J. LeRoy’s duties was organizing the annual Santa Claus parade and he liked to utilize the latest technology. If, both he, and the business were alive today there is little doubt that Santa would arrive for his parade by rocket ship, blasting to earth at a nearby parking lot.

In the early years of Holman’s store, Santa arrived aboard a sailing vessel that docked at Holman’s wharf in Summerside harbour. Back at the turn of the 20th century he came by train. Yes, Virginia, there once were passenger trains on the Island.

A few weeks before Christmas, a Holman’s employee would be dispatched on the Western train to Tignish carrying a valise for his Santa costume and a second, full of candies. The next day he would return as Santa. Advertisements were placed informing the people of Prince County that Santa would be on the train and would arrive in Summerside station at an appointed hour where he would be met and paraded to the store on Water Street. Enroute he would hand out the candy to the children in the villages where the train stopped.

Usually things went off without a hitch. One year, after the advertisements were placed, expectations created, and a crowd at the station in Summerside, there was no Santa when the train arrived. People were asked to return the next day when Santa was sure to turn up; they did, but he didn’t.

The following day a telegram was received pleading with J. LeRoy to come west and fetch his Santa Claus, “He’s been drunk in Coleman for the past two days.”

In the early days of flight, J. LeRoy, who always wanted to make a big impact with Santa’s arrival, announced that this year, Santa would fly into Summerside in an airplane that would land on the roof of Holman’s store.

The building still stands in downtown Summerside, it’s four stories high, with a flat roof and is a city block long. It was conceivable that people unfamiliar with airplanes might believe such a feat was possible.

On the day of Santa’s arrival a large crowd gathered in the street in front of the store to witness this miracle of transport. Up on the west end of the roof, lying flat, out of the crowd’s view, was the silhouette of a bi-plane with wings attached and cutouts where the pilot and Santa would be seen. A small gasoline engine with the muffler removed was nearby. 

A man in the crowd shouted, “Here he comes” and pointed east, diverting the crowd’s attention. Up on the roof, the silhouette was flipped erect on to its wheels, the engine fired up, making a helluva racket, and a waving Santa and his pilot pushed the contraption along the roof. To all below it didn’t take a lot of imagination to believe that the aeroplane had just landed and was gliding to a halt.

By the 1940s, after the air base was established in Summerside, Santa was often photographed just emerging from one of the military aircraft. He would then placed aboard an appropriately decorated float and driven through the streets of Summerside to Toyland in Holman’s store.

The float was usually one of Holman’s delivery vans wrapped in paper and disguised as a sleigh. One year, either the wrapping was too well sealed, or there was a leak in the vehicle’s exhaust. As the parade progressed along Water Street, the driver of the float passed out and the vehicle crashed into the front of Smallman’s store, one of Holman’s chief competitors. The driver survived, Holman’s was embarrassed and Smallman’s enjoyed the publicity.

Holman’s, Smallman's and a host of other Island retailers are long gone. But, imagination, Santa, and Christmas survive. May yours be a merry one.



- Alan Holman is a freelance journalist living in Charlottetown. He can be reached at: