Was Walt Disney Really Santa Claus?

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Joyce C. Hall (founder of Hallmark) who was a good friend of Walt Disney wrote him a letter that was displayed in the One Man's Dream attraction at Disney's Hollywood Studios for many years.

On a plane trip headed to California, Hall asked three children who were in nearby seats what they most wanted to see in Southern California which was filled with so many interesting places and things. All agreed eagerly that the most important thing was to visit Disneyland.

Then, Hall asked the oldest girl what she thought Walt was, whether he was a real man or somebody more like Santa Claus. She thoughtfully pondered the question for a moment and answered with earnest seriousness, "Both."

Walt with Santa Claus.

For most of us who are Disney fans, that young girl's response was probably the most appropriate answer. Disney and Christmas seem to share many of the same core values: magic, family, joy, caring, celebrating and more. Christmas might seem incomplete without some element of Disney whether it is a cartoon, a toy, a book, or a visit to a theme park.

At the premiere of the animated classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) during the December holiday season, Jesse Lasky, film pioneer responsible for The Covered Wagon and the original film version of The Ten Commandments told reporters, "Who says there is no Santy (sp) Claus? It seems to me that Walt Disney tonight in giving this feature to the children of the world is indeed the modern Santa Claus!"

Hollywood columnist Louella Parsons echoed that sentiment when she stated, "One thing I do know is that this picture is the best Christmas present the children of Hollywood could possibly have."

Walt did strive to maintain the Santa Claus myth as long as possible for his two daughters. In the December 1938 issue of the magazine Woman's Day, Walt was asked if he believed in Santa Claus today and Walt responded, "Certainly, yes. When my little daughters confront me with the question, I shall say without a twinge, 'Of course there is.' Long Live Santa Claus!"

Walt's oldest daughter Diane Disney Miller told me, "Mother and father always used to be very insistent upon observing the Santa Claus myth. They would fill our stockings in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve."

Author Bob Thomas recalled that Walt enjoyed playing Santa Claus for his friends so much that he maintained a file of hundreds of children of his personal friends, members of the press, studio workers, film executives, and more. Each child got gifts of Disney character merchandise, primarily one large important item plus a few little ones, each individually wrapped.

Walt's secretaries were the real Santa's elves responsible for putting together all these packages for the children. Beginning early in November, they were often kept busy right up to a few days before Christmas in a special room in the studio warehouse.

Walt dropped in daily to inspect the packages and make sure that his directions were being carried out. The gifts continued until the child reached the age of 12, then he or she was dropped from the list and received a Disney Studio Christmas card instead each year. The official age for a child at Disneyland was ages 3 to 11 and then beginning at age 12 they were classified as a "junior."

Walt made sure there was an annual Christmas party at the Disney Studio each year. The party featured not only the usual food and beverage but some form of live entertainment like the Firehouse Five Plus Two Dixieland jazz band. In addition there was an appearance by Santa who handed out presents to the children and several Disney shorts were shown.

Of course, Walt served as a surrogate Santa Claus to countless children thanks to his support of the Toys for Tots program that the Walt Disney Company still supports today.

Walt stands next to a Toys for Tots box donation box.

Toys for Tots began in 1947 but originally only encompassed the Los Angeles, California area when it distributed roughly five thousand toys to needy children.

Walt Disney became involved the very next year by designing the official Toys for Tots train logo that is still used to this day, as well as having the artists at his studio create a poster to support the nationwide program when it expanded in 1948. Walt is considered one of the founding sponsors of the organization.

Why did Walt choose a red cartoon train for the logo? Well, perhaps it had something to do with the fact that just months before Walt had attended the Chicago Railroad Fair with Ward Kimball and was already thinking about a miniature railroad in his backyard. Certainly, Walt always thought of toy trains at Christmas and often gave them as gifts, even to himself one Christmas.

Walt promoted the Toys for Tots program on his weekly television show during the holiday season and when Disneyland opened in 1955, it became a prime location to drop off new and used toys in multiple boxes scattered throughout the different lands. Guests were even encouraged to purchase a toy at Disneyland to drop in one of the boxes.

Walt filmed a special Public Service Announcement television spot where he told the audience, "Now it's very seldom that our Marine Corp needs help but right now they do. Help in filling these brightly colored barrels with brand new toys. These brand new toys that will make it a very Merry Christmas for the children across the country who might otherwise be forgotten."

One thing that always makes me smile is the opening segment on the Disney weekly anthology television show in the episode entitled "Holiday Time at Disneyland" that originally ran December 23, 1962. It has been rerun many times over the decades. The show starts with Dickensian Christmas carolers singing in front of the Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland.

Holiday Time at the Disneyland Resort.

Amazingly, thanks to movie magic, it is snowing in Anaheim, California. The lively Dickensian bell ringer turns around to face the audience and it turns out to be a smiling Walt Disney. While this was all filmed at the Burbank studio in front of a process screen rather than Ub Iwerks traveling matte, to a young child like myself it felt like it was actually taking place at Disneyland.

Later, Santa Claus (actor Paul Maxey who had performed on the Jack Benny annual Christmas shows as the jolly old elf) himself shows up and worries that the snow might not be good for the special Disneyland holiday parade. Walt has Tinker Bell magically turn off the snow. Two children excitedly run up to Santa Claus and Walt for an autograph on their Disneyland souvenir guidebook.

"Sure, you can have our autographs," says Walt filled with Christmas spirit. "You go first, Santa." After Santa signs his autograph, Walt prepares to sign and the kids grab the guidebook and run off mumbling under their breath, "Who's that other guy?" Walt is amused and tells Santa, "It is your day, Santa, so make the most of it. I've got 365."

Walt Disney wrote in Reader's Digest (December 1941) that "One reason the Christmas season appeals to me is that it makes us suspend business-as-usual routine and let our minds soar for a while. Christmas seems to release even the most solemn of us from the Scrooge realism that occasionally besets all of us."

Despite that proclamation, Walt's wife Lillian claimed that he didn't care as much for the holiday season as people thought because he couldn't go into the studio to work. Lillian recalled, "Walt didn't like holidays because he couldn't work on them. Everybody took off for the day, at the Studio. Christmas didn't mean a great deal to him.

"When he got through with the festivities he went to his room and read, usually. He never wasted time. He liked to set up the children's toys as he did the train one year. But he couldn't just sit and visit with people."

However, that is not to say that Walt disliked Christmas. The joy of Christmas for Walt was in giving to others, especially his family, and not about receiving presents for himself. For himself, Walt found more delight in getting the simplest of gifts than in the lavish presents from his peers in the motion picture industry.

When Walt was a small boy growing up on a farm in Marceline, Missouri, Christmas was a very special time of the year for the Disney family. Walt remembered relatives coming to visit and neighbors dropping by for a holiday visit.

The area surrounding the farm was covered in a blanket of glistening, white snow hiding any unsightly flaws underneath and making it seem like a magical wonderland. Routine chores were temporarily halted and unsolved problems put aside to concentrate on Christmas preparations.

Walt's family had limited means which sometimes put a strain on things. His father Elias did his best to be a good provider for his wife and five children making sure they were clothed and fed but there was little money left over for luxuries and frills.

Because of this humble upbringing, Walt learned at an early age a true sense of values. He saw that happiness was not connected with wealth of some physical possession but was contentment with what he had, especially the closeness with his family. Walt loved the days of preparation during the Christmas season.

He would trudge through the snow with his older brothers in search of a perfect Christmas tree, generally a pine or cedar, to chop down and drag home. Some of the decorations were provided by nature. Walt would pick out holly leaves with big red berries. One of his older brothers would shoot down mistletoe from the top of a large oak tree.

At night, Walt would spend time with his mother Flora around a large pot bellied stove stringing popcorn and cranberries to serve as a garland around the tree. Even then, Walt had an artistic bent and would cut out stars and angels from scraps of paper and foil to adorn the tree.

Walt stands in front of a Christmas tree.

In the December 1938 issue of the magazine Woman's Day in an article by Munro Leaf, the author after interviewing Walt in his office wrote: "After Walt Disney found out at the age of six that there wasn't any team of reindeer waiting up on the roof while a fat man slid down his chimney, he had fun pretending to his parents that he still believed the whole works."

Walt once shared, "My parents were conservative people and there were few extra dollars for such frivolities in those days. I always got some sensible, modest present for Christmas. One time Roy bought me a shiny gyroscopic top with its wonderful spinning ability."

Every December over a 25-year period, Walt Disney wrote a news filled Christmas letter to his younger sister, Ruth Beecher who lived in Portland, Oregon detailing the family events and what was going on at the studio.

On December 8, 1947, he wrote: "I bought myself a birthday-Christmas present—something I've wanted all my life—an electric train. Being a girl, you probably can't understand how much I wanted one when I was a kid, but I've got one now and what fun I'm having.

"I have it set up in one of the outer rooms adjoining my office so I can play with it in my spare moments. It's a freight train with a whistle, and real smoke comes out of the smokestack—there are switches, semaphores, station and everything. It's just wonderful!"

Walt was so excited that he also asked to see whether her son, Ted, might like a train set for Christmas. He made the same offer to his niece, Marjorie Davis and her son, Geoffrey, and his brother Herbert's grandson, David Puder.

Traditionally on Christmas morning, a huge tree appeared in the Disney's two-story vaulted ceiling living room at their home on Woking Way. Walt would have spent much of the night decorating it while Lilly filled the stockings and laid out the multitude of gifts. Some of them were toys of Mickey Mouse and other Disney characters.

There was what was called a Juliet balcony (so named because it was reminiscent of the famous balcony in Romeo and Juliet) overlooking the two story living room from the second floor hall. Diane and her sister Sharon named it "Christmas Tree Point" because on Christmas morning they opened the doors of their bedroom and ran out and stood there looking down at the huge Christmas tree and the presents beneath it.

Aside from the children's toys, there was no evidence of Walt's studio life in the Disney home. He didn't have framed cels on the wall nor displayed a Mickey Mouse figure on a shelf. Other than his daughters' gifts at Christmas, it kept his home life and studio life separate.

In later years, Walt usually left his family shopping until a day or two before Christmas, and his secretaries were enlisted to help. Often he settled on expensive perfumes or unique pieces of jewelry for Lilly and their daughters.

His daughter Diane remembered in 1956, "What I think is so wonderful now that I've thought back over it, is that we had to want things terribly before we got them and we never got everything we wanted. And that's always good. When we were tiny, we were too young to enjoy a lot of toys.

"Like I see pictures of our first Christmas and I was surrounded by toys. Mechanical toys, dolls and stuffed animals of a towering size and all things like that.

"But when it came to the time when we really wanted things…when we were about five or six… when you want roller skates or you want a bicycle or a dog or a house or a doll. And we had to want them a long, long time.

"(Dad's) always been generous. But I think he realized after a time that you mustn't spoil children and that because it's an age when the more you want things, the more you like them better while you're wanting them before you get them. When you get them, you're crazy about it for a few days or weeks and then it's old.

"I still have home movies that Dad shot of some of the early Christmases at Woking Way. There was a huge tree that went to the top of our two story living room. It was covered with a myriad of ornaments and around the tree were toys of every conceivable shape and kind.

"And there I was sitting, surrounded by the mechanical ones, and hitting at them as they moved and performed. He gave (Sharon and I) each a watch when we were seven years old that was inscribed on the back with his name and the date. Mine said, 'To Diane From Daddy'.

"Other Christmases, it was antique jewelry, which he liked. When he gives gifts he wants to give gifts you can remember him by. He's afraid that he's going to be gone and forgotten. He loves to give us jewelry. And every Christmas he's given us a little piece of jewelry.

"On Christmas it was usually something antique. He loves antique jewelry. Nothing expensive or elaborate but a little pair of antique gold earrings. He gave Mother once some seals in the forms of a necklace and then at a later Christmas there were some seals hanging from a bracelet. Seals used for sealing wax and things like that.

"One time he gave her a bracelet with little Oscar statuettes to represent the ones he had won. He had to get special permission from the Academy to do that and she loved it."

Diane was born December 18, 1933 and she saw her first Disney animated cartoon one week later on Christmas Day.

In 1933, Walt had a huge success with a Silly Symphony titled "The Three Little Pigs." However, because Lillian had already suffered two previous miscarriages, she was especially cautious during her pregnancy with Diane and had been primarily housebound and not had a chance to go out to a theater to see Walt's latest triumph.

So, on Christmas Day, Walt came into the nursery of their home where Lillian was with baby Diane. Walt struggled to put up a movie screen that had to be unfolded and balanced on its tripod legs.

Walt set up a movie projector and showed Lillian and Diane the animated short that had been uniformly lauded that year. Lilly laughed throughout the film and told Walt it was one of his best.

When it was finished, she turned to Walt and said, "I feel I should have given you… " Walt assumed she was going to say "a son" but Lillian started laughing and pointed at the screen "triplets!"

Finding gifts for Walt was a recurring problem. After opening packages he often grumbled, "I don't need that."

One year his daughters presented him with a handsome volume of the complete works of Leonardo da Vinci. "What are you trying to do? Educate me?" he grumbled. Later than day Sharon and Diane saw him in a corner sitting in his favorite chair poring over the open book in his lap.

Disney Studio nurse Hazel George had a good sense of what would please her boss, and she rarely spent over a dollar. One Christmas she gave him a dime store kaleidoscope, and it fascinated him. He insisted that visitors to his office peer at the changing patterns of light and color.

Once he entered St. Joseph's Hospital in late November 1966, Walt was too ill to even dictate his yearly Christmas letter to Ruth. One of his personal secretaries, Tommie Wilck, sent her Walt's best wishes and the assurance that he would write her a Christmas letter when he felt better.

On December 14, 1966, Walt's daughter went Christmas shopping to get something nice for her father like a nice cashmere sweater, one of his favorite items of clothing, because he had lost a great deal of weight so his clothes didn't fit quite right.

She picked up a few other things and wanted to bring in a Christmas tree as well to brighten her father's hospital room but felt it wouldn't be allowed. She later regretted not doing so.

Walt never got his Christmas gifts that year. He never left the hospital. He passed away the morning of December 15, 1966 just 10 days short of the holiday.

If you want to extend the spirit of a Disney Christmas, my book Vault of Walt: Volume 7 Christmas Edition is filled with nothing but Christmas stories of Walt Disney, the parks, the Disney films and more.