In 1941 we were working in Rochester in the Mercantile Building which is just across the main drag from McCurdy's Department Store.
In the interests of good clean fun and advertising, McCurdy's had installed that year, in a front window, one of those huge bellowing Santa Clauses, three times life size, which rocks and rolls and slaps his crimson thigh with a hand as big as a ham.
Those particular monsters were quite a novelty in 1941, and the one at McCurdy's collected crowds of people who stood and laughed along with him, mildly hypnotized by the repetitive motions. There was something mammoth and awe inspiring about him, and if you stood too close to the plate glass, he gave you a vague sense of alarm.
Anyway, we went to work quite early one morning, before the stores were open and before the streets were crowded. Probably by prior arrangement with the orphanage concerned the big mechanical Santa had been activated and there he was, roaring and rocking and slapping his leg as he looked out at the empty street.
We were about to pass him by when we saw, coming from the opposite direction, about forty moppets in column of twos herded by two Sisters. It was a nice idea, bringing the little people down to see that over-size Santa. Having watched the parents of little children try to hush their horrified screams after one glance at the monster, we had a pretty fair idea of what would happen when those orderly kids arrived in front of the window.
We stuck around to watch.
The little people slowed their steps when they came close to the window, alarmed by the bellowing alone. When they got right up to him, all discipline vanished. They were green troops in the presence of the enemy. The wailing of the kids made almost as much noise as the bellowing of the Santa. About thirty of the forty tried to find refuge behind the billowing skirts of the Sisters, and the remaining ten, petrified, stood and watched the horrible giant.
They had been led to expect a mild, fat, jolly little man with a twinkle in his eye, and here was something the size of a small bungalow which made as much noise as a locomotive.
One little man broke from shelter, and with doubled fists and pumping legs, began to make time back in the direction from which he had come. In three running steps, a Sister got hold of him, but in so doing left numerous others exposed. They lost no time getting behind her again.
It appears that in all humor there must be elements of tragedy. It was sad and funny to think of the gap between anticipation and the actuality.
At that precise moment, the mechanical Santa broke into flames.
He couldn't have picked a worse time to acquire a short circuit in his red flannels. The Sisters were equal to the occasion. By superhuman effort, they got their little wards back into a column of twos and led them to the nearest crosswalk and across the street. A man on our side of the street put in the alarm while we were still thinking about it.
One of the most horrible sights we ever saw was that Santa Claus. If the fire had stopped him cold, it wouldn't have been so bad. But it apparently didn't damage his mechanism.
While the flames roared up around him, devouring his whiskers, he kept rocking back and forth, slapping himself on the leg with an arm which had turned into skeletal wires, and the sound of his, “Wah! Hah! Hah! Ho! Ho! Ho! Ho!” still roared in the empty street.
The little people clutched each other and their eyes bulged. After much effort, the Sisters got the line moving again and they went back down the street. But every little head was turned and every small mouth sagged open.
The fire engines came quickly and, as they squirted some kind of foam on Santa, he stopped moving and the sound of his laughter was stilled.
When the curtains in the Store window were drawn across the scene of horror, we turned away and went up to the office.
--from John D MacDonald's weekly newspaper column, published in the December 18, 1947 issue of The Clinton Courier.