History's People: Warren Mercer was County's Santa Claus

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Rob Lukens, Ph.D.
Originally Published in the Daily Local News
Release Date: 
December 15, 2011

If you look in the history books to read about Santa Claus, you'll discover a tale that is millennia old and involved countless people in the making.  Harkening from fourth-century Turkey, a monk named St. Nicholas became legendary for his kindness. His name morphed into the Dutch “Sinter Klaas,” and eventually “Santa Claus.”  In the U.S., poet Clement Moore forged Santa's modern tale with his 1820s poem Twas the Night Before Christmas and cartoonist Thomas Nast helped put a face, beard, and cap with the story.

Now, if you look to Chester County's past for the legend of St. Nicholas, one person's name comes to mind – that of West Chester resident Warren Mercer. For over four decades, between 1941 and 1984 when he hung up his red cap in retirement, Mercer delighted thousands of Chester Countians as their real Santa.

Born in 1906, Mercer lived and worked in the West Chester area his entire life. By day, he was a plaster worker for West Chester University. But as the weather cooled in the fall, Mercer's life took on extraordinary importance to the fabric of Chester County.

It all began in Downingtown in 1941. As he relayed in a 1970 Daily Local News article, "I grew up on a farm and we never got to see Santa." So when he decided to start portraying him in 1941, he "wanted to look just like the Santa I remembered from the old pictures we had," according to Mercer.  Mercer delighted children with appearances at the 1701 Log Cabin and other venues in Downingtown. 

After seventeen years in Downingtown, Mercer's venue changed to Mosteller's Department Store at Church and Gay Streets in West Chester.  Harold Barnett, former advertising director for Mosteller's, distinctly remembers Mercer's impact on the many kids that flocked to the store every year.  Mercer arrived in dramatic fashion, climbing a fire engine ladder to the third floor of the store, followed by an entourage of elves.

"He was a great guy to work with," Barnett remembers, "and he looked and acted the part." Barnett, who had four girls of his own, remarks today that "his rapport with children was unbelievable."

Lori Amway, Mercer's grandniece, will never forget her great uncle Warren. She visited him several times as Santa in the 1960s and 1970s. When she was eight or nine, the secret unraveled in front of her when she overheard her grandmother say to Santa "Ok, Warren, I'll see you Sunday for dinner."

To fully grasp the impact of Mercer's life as Santa, consider all of the venues where he would appear in addition to his regular job and work at Mosteller's.   For decades, he visited sick people of all ages at Chester County Hospital, delivering gifts and holiday cheer on Christmas Day. He frequented nursing homes, day cares, and facilities for special needs children.  He would even visit private homes for those most in need.

Mercer would never accept money for his appearances. In fact,  if families could not afford presents, he was known to take down their names and addresses down and send them gifts.

When he died in 1989, he had already been retired for five years. But his legacy lives on in the memories of those who visited him year after year.  Warren Mercer is the only Santa Claus to be immortalized at the Chester County Historical Society, as his suit is part of the permanent collections. The last time the suit was on display, in 2007, patrons were moved to tears in viewing it. Along with his suit, CCHS cares for a collection of clippings, photographs, and most important of all, an archive of letters to Santa which Mercer saved with care.

As I learned about the life and legacy of Warren Mercer, it made me think of my first memory of Santa Claus. It was not a good one. I was in kindergarten and Santa came for a visit. My fellow kindergartners chortled with joy as he entered the classroom and sat down to distribute candy canes.

Unfortunately, I was in the front row - too close, as it turns out. My stomach churned with horror when I saw clear up under his beard. The revelation hit me - it was the janitor!  From that point on, I was forever skeptical whenever I came across the big man in the red suit.

If it was only Warren Mercer in my classroom that day, I'd probably still believe today.

Caption: Warren Mercer, 1950. Mercer's four-plus decades of appearances as Santa Claus began in Downingtown in 1941. Courtesy of the Chester County Historical Society, West Chester, PA.