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Grand Rapids in 1856

Scene of early Grand Rapids viewed from the...

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Santa Claus Girls Celebrate 100 Years

by GR Public Library & GRHC

published: November 12th, 2008

In 1908 Adriana VanDoorn, a 23-year old Sunday school secretary and pastor’s assistant at First (Park) Congregational Church, stopped to chat with Elizabeth Muir, one of the reporters, on a trip to the Grand Rapids Herald to deliver the church’s weekly news. During their conversation, Muir showed VanDoorn a news story about a Philadelphia woman who was trying to be Santa Claus to the “forgotten children.” VanDoorn excitedly told Muir, “That’s what I’ve always wanted to do.” (Find more information to your right in Related Items)

Muir suggested that perhaps Arthur H. Vandenberg, the Herald's editor, could help make this dream become reality. During the next hour, VanDoorn's enthusiasm convinced Vandenberg to offer the newspaper's support to her efforts. He and postmaster L.K. Bishop arranged to have mail addressed to Santa Claus delivered to the Herald.

VanDoorn agreed to visit the home of each child who had written. In those cases where the parents were financially able, VanDoorn returned the letters to the parents so they could fulfill the specific wish. In cases where the parents, often single mothers, were "desperately battling the tide of life" to provide food, clothing, shelter and had no resources to buy gifts, VanDoorn would satisfy the child's wish.

By Christmas Eve, cash donations totaled $85, with merchandise increasing the value collected to more than $200--20 times the amount VanDoorn had hope to raise. Approximately 150 children received gifts that were delivered between 5 and 7 o'clock by four automobiles loaned by local dealerships: a Franklin, Ford, Buick, and Reo.

All of the donated gifts were new, money donated to the Santa Claus Girls was used to purchase gifts from local merchants at wholesale prices, and every penny collected went toward the presents as all the help was done by volunteers. Every year the Herald put on a dinner to honor the volunteers--their only payment.

Those contributing time, money, and gifts to the Santa Claus Girls included many individuals of the community, most of the city's service organizations, church guilds, the marines, corporate groups and businesses, school children, Camp Fire Girls, and Boy and Girl Scouts. Some regular yearly contributors were those who remembered receiving gifts from the Santa Claus Girls when they were children.

Dolls were always a popular donation and by the early 1930s the Herald introduced a program to provide dolls to anyone willing to dress the dolls in handmade clothes. Winners of the best-dressed dolls were chosen and their photographs often appeared in the newspaper.

Warm knitted mittens, hats, and scarves were another popular item placed in gift bags. Adriana VanDoorn had always insisted that Christmas candy be included in every child's bag of gifts that volunteers prepared. Three thousand pounds of candy filled stockings for seven thousand children in 1930 as the depression began to affect families.

It was VanDoorn's idea that each gift should contain an item for pleasure such as a toy, book, or game; an article of clothing is included as well as warm mittens and hats and, of course, a bag of candy. All the items given by the Santa Claus Girls are new.

Santa Claus Girls wrapped all the gifts and packed them in a bag for each child. Over their one-hundred-year history the men of the YMCA and Park Church have delivered for the Santa Claus Girls as have the Marines, Blodgett Storage, and many other volunteers. Currently it takes about 325 drivers to deliver the gifts the week before Christmas.

Children who were ill or bed-ridden during the holidays were always of special concern. Gifts from Santa would light up a child's face as it did for this little girl on Holley SW. Names of children are provided by the Family Independent Agency and by schools and churches.

When youngsters whispered in Santa's ear or wrote to him at the North Pole, the Santa Claus Girls would do their best to make sure those wishes were granted. While the original object of the Santa Claus girls was to answer the appeals for Christmas gifts made by children through the mail, in their search they found real want which was screened from public view.

When the Grand Rapids Herald closed in 1959, the Press, with the Grand Rapids Federation of Women's Clubs, continued the work of the Santa Claus Girls. In 2007 they received almost $180,000 in donations and 11,721 children received presents. We remember the Santa Claus Girls as they celebrate one-hundred years of making Christmas brighter for the our children.

First Santa Claus Girl

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 In 1908, Arianna VanDoorn founded the Santa Claus Girls to bring cheer to boys and girls who, unfortunately, would not be receiving gifts at Christmas time.    


Grand Rapids Public Library, History & Special Collection Dept.

  • Santa Claus Girls Collection, Coll. 180
  • Grand Rapids Press Collection, Coll. 297
  • Grand Rapids Newspaper Collection, Coll. 259, Box 111
  • Robinson Studio Collection, Coll. 125

Grand Rapids Public Library

  • Cohen, David. Christmas in America: Images of the Holiday Season by 100 of America’s Leading Photographers. Collins, 1988. (Includes a page on the Grand Rapids Santa Claus Girls)


Park Church History

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