We all know he's coming to town, but the question is how will he arrive? Driving a traditional sled, or conducting a vintage train? Or perhaps at the wheel of a flashy convertible?
The guest of honour has made his grand entrance in all these vehicles over the years at Toronto's venerable Santa Claus Parade. This year, as this well-loved event marks its 100th consecutive parade, Canada Post has issued its annual set of three Christmas stamps in honour of jolly old Saint Nick.
"These designs were chosen to commemorate Toronto's Santa Claus Parade with fun representations of the event, but in a way that would also be appealing to everyone else in the country," says Alain Leduc, Design Manager of Stamp Products at Canada Post. "So there's a fanciful, festive quality to the images."
The stamps were designed by Saskia van Kampen of the Toronto firm Gottschalk+Ash. After reviewing photos of the parade and its floats over the years, she proposed concepts for each design - the domestic rate (49¢) stamp would show Santa on his sled, as he is traditionally portrayed in Canada; the U.S. rate stamp (80¢) would have him driving a Cadillac, an iconic American car; and the international rate stamp ($1.40) would show him in a train, a popular means of transportation around the world. "We deliberately chose vehicles significant to the part of the world where each stamp will be sent," says van Kampen. "The designs honour the parade, because Santa has actually arrived on floats like these over the years, but they really focus on Christmas."
With the design concepts established, style was the next consideration. "Christmas is such a whimsical time of the year," says van Kampen. "I was looking for a playful, magical quality for these stamps."
She found it in the work of Toronto artist Tim Zeltner, from whom original illustrations were commissioned. In his first stamp work for Canada Post, Zeltner produced three paintings to meet van Kampen's design requirements, each in his own distinctive style. "My work is based on folk art, but with a modern twist," says Zeltner. "These paintings are intentionally naïve, with flat perspective, so there's a bit of an old-world look to them, but also a sense of fun - they're light-hearted."
Zeltner paints with bright acrylic colours on wood, building up layers of paint and then sanding, adding more paint, and introducing stains, dyes and transparent glazes to the mix. "I like the feel of wood, and it can stand up to all that work," he says. The end result is a flat painting with an almost three-dimensional quality.
This depth translates well in reproduction, even at stamp size. "The colours in these images are intense," says van Kampen. "We also added metallic colours, to give the stamps some of the sparkle and shine of Christmas." These reflective elements are particularly effective in the backgrounds of each image, giving them the festive appearance of Christmas wrapping paper.
The three backgrounds were each painted a different colour, to ensure the stamps are easily distinguished. Zeltner's original paintings are all larger than the images that appear on the stamps, but the snowy landscapes he painted as foregrounds and his intricately detailed borders had to be cropped, in order to keep the focus on Santa.
The man in red is the main attraction, after all, not only on these stamps but also in parades across the country each year. The Toronto event celebrates 100 consecutive years in 2004, which makes it the longest-running Santa Claus parade in the world.
In 1905, a few hundred people came to see Santa arrive by train at Toronto's Union Station, then make his way to the downtown Eaton's department store. This first parade was a success, and Eaton's, its sponsor, made it an annual event. Over the years, it grew ever larger and more elaborate. In 1913, Santa arrived in a sleigh drawn by four live reindeer from Labrador. By 1917, he was joined by the first floats, which were decorated in fairy tale and nursery rhyme themes. Beginning in 1925, the parade became a traveling show, with floats and costumes sent by train to Montreal for its parade a week later.
By the 1950s, Toronto had the largest Santa Claus parade in North America. It often stretched over a mile and a half in length, and was televised across Canada and in the United States. Eaton's continued to finance the entire production each year, making all the costumes and building the floats.
Given the ongoing costs, Eaton's finally withdrew its sponsorship of the parade in 1982. Since then, it has been successfully funded by private sponsors. One afternoon each November, floats, clowns, and marching bands parade along a six-kilometre route through the city. The show isn't over until Santa himself appears, but just how he'll arrive in this 100th parade is anyone's guess.
For information about the Toronto Santa Claus Parade visit: www.thesantaclausparade.com.