Back in harness: T&G Santa sleigh returns to holiday duty at Mercantile Center

In Media

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By Mike Elfland and Jeff A. Chamer

Photo: Toni Caushi

WORCESTER — Workers making their way home from Whittall Mills, Wyman-Gordon and other industrial giants of the early 1900s would catch up on the news with that day’s Evening Gazette. Much could’ve happened since they clocked in earlier that morning.

But the Gazette wasn’t the only option. The Worcester Evening Post, founded in 1891, and run for years by Eugene Moriarty, was an afternoon option for city readers.

In 1900, Worcester had four main newspapers: the Telegram and the Worcester Daily Spy in the morning, and the Gazette and Post in the afternoon.

In 1938, the owners of The Evening Gazette, George Booth and Harry Stoddard, bought the Evening Post. The Post had a popular Santa’s Fund, modeled after the Boston Post’s holiday fundraising effort, and Booth adopted the idea. He called it Gazette Santa.

Workers in the Gazette’s promotions department were tasked with using the donated money to buy toys for the needy, including the youth at St. Ann’s Orphanage.

Organizing began soon after Thanksgiving, highlighted by shopping trips to Denholm and McKay and John C. MacInnes department stores.

In the 1950s, the Gazette came into possession of a traditional holiday sleigh. It soon became the centerpiece of the Gazette Fund.

The sleigh was positioned in the newspaper’s decorated lobby at 20 Franklin St. In the weeks leading to Christmas, customers on shopping excursions downtown made sure to drop off gifts on and around the sleigh.

For many, if they could find a spot amid the gifts, it was an appropriate place for a holiday photo.

When the gifts began to pile up, workers shuttled them to a storage room at the Worcester Memorial Auditorium.

Meantime, the sleigh became a favorite of the children of Gazette employees. It was placed front and center at the company’s children’s Christmas parties.

Gazette Santa became Telegram & Gazette Santa after the morning and evening papers merged in 1989.

In recent years, the sleigh remained in storage, its fate uncertain.

Preservation Worcester could not find anyone to take the sleigh. When Craig Blais, president of the Worcester Development Business Corp., learned that the sleigh was headed for the dump, he called Chip Norton, managing director of the Mercantile Center and Franklin Realty Advisors.

Norton agreed to take custody of the sleigh, restore and display it during the holiday season in the lobby of the Mercantile Center at 100 Front St., the current home of the T&G.

Sleigh returns, to Mercantile Center

This week, dozens of people — Santa Claus among them — filled the lobby of 100 Front St., ready to catch a glimpse of a holiday sleigh overflowing with gifts and celebrate the T&G Santa Fund.

“I think it’s awesome that the sleigh has been restored. It’s one of Worcester’s traditions,” said City Councilor Candy Mero-Carlson. “It’s one example of how Chip has been integral to the city.”

“When I learned of the fate of the sleigh and its historical significance, I was delighted to take it, store it, refurbish it, and now display it here at Mercantile Center this year and for many years to come,” Norton said. “As we look at and participate in the revitalization of downtown Worcester, this is a poignant reminder of the city’s rich tradition of coming together for almost 85 years to give back to those in need in our community, then and now.”

David Nordman, the former executive editor of the T&G, also made an appearance to celebrate the return of the sleigh and the Santa Fund.

“Very few things could bring people together like this,” Nordman said. “It’s really just all about the kids and when you have a cause like putting gifts under a tree, it brings people together.”

He said it’s because of this shared goal that the T&G Santa Fund has been able to continue for 84 years, and the return of the sleigh helps restore an integral part of that yearly tradition.

“It helps bring back history and nostalgia to Worcester, thanks to Chip,” said Mayor Joseph M. Petty.

People who work in the building, or come by to visit, will be able to leave monetary donations for the fund, which works with the United Way of Central Massachusetts and 21 nonprofit agencies to provide toys for hundreds of children in need each year.

A thriving partnership

“We love this partnership,” said Tim Garvin, president and CEO of United Way of Central Massachusetts. “The T&G Santa Fund brings full opportunity and joy to our children so that everyone can experience the excitement of Christmas or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa.”

One of the things Garvin appreciates the most, he said, is the diversity of places and people who donate to the fund, such as the Rainbow Child Development Center and Sutton Middle School.

“I don’t even know who these kids are, but somehow they thought of others,” Garvin said. “They gathered money, so that kids will have a great holiday. I can’t think of a more beautiful Christmas.”

Nancy Thibault, communications and development manager for Rainbow Child, said the organization was fortunate to receive gifts from the Santa Fund, particularly during a time of rising costs.

Maritza Delacruz, area administrator for emergency services at Catholic Charities of Worcester County, said that the program is important, especially as Worcester’s undocumented immigrant community continues to grow.

“Programs like this are a plus,” Delacruz said. “It’s needed for the community and makes a huge difference.”

She also said that the return of the sleigh was “very festive” and something that will help bring up people’s spirits.

Michael McDermott, the T&G’s executive editor, said readers have “stepped up their generosity” this year, and that he hopes the presence of the sleigh inspires people to donate in the future.

“Thanks to the generosity of our readers and our great partnership with the United Way, the T&G Santa Fund has been able to provide holiday joy to children in need for more than 80 years, and I’m proud to help continue this tradition,” McDermott said. “I’m thrilled that this sleigh, a long-lost symbol of this effort, will be displayed in the Mercantile Center during the holiday season, and I thank Chip Norton and Craig Blais for all they have done to make it happen.”