The Spirit of Giving and Sidewalk Santa

For more than 100 years, Volunteers of America’s Sidewalk Santa has embodied America’s spirit of giving during the holiday season.

Our first Sidewalk Santa rang his bell for the needy in 1900. Today, we no longer have our Santas on the street but we continue with the work that they stood for through our Spirit of Giving Campaign. With more than 15 percent of Americans living at or below the poverty line, the need for help is greater than ever before. In response, our Spirit of Giving campaign has returned to the forefront. Encouraging us to support our neighbors in need, give back to our communities and share what we have with others, our Sidewalk Santas may be gone but their Spirit of Giving is still there to provide hope to thousands of Americans facing homelessness, hunger and desperation.

Help us continue to bring the joy of the holidays to families and individuals that are struggling by making a donation today or by shopping our gift catalog and giving a meaningful gift that truly will help those in need.

Sidewalk Santa during the 1900s


Sidewalk Santa is first introduced in Los Angeles during the balmy winter of 1900. According to historical records, the five original Sidewalk Santas are hauled off to jail and booked for creating a nuisance. A public outcry ensues and the Santas are released. They go on to raise some $800 for Christmas dinners for the poor, far exceeding their goal of $500. In short order, Sidewalk Santa begins to appear across the country, arriving in New York City in 1902.
Sidewalk Santa during the 1920s


During the Great Depression, Sidewalk Santa helps raise money for Volunteers of America programs across the country. New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Portland, and Louisville all receive yearly visits from Sidewalk Santa.
1940 santa alt text


Despite war, rapid social change, and general world disorder, Sidewalk Santa appears during the holidays on many street corners beside the familiar chimney, ringing the bell to remind Americans to help their neighbors in need.

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Sidewalk Santa during the 1950s


Volunteers of America-Greater New York begins a new tradition--Santa School, which teaches Santas-in-training such practical skills as how to firmly attach their wig and beard and how to answer the all important question, Are you the real Santa? A celebrity teacher instructs Santas in bell-ringing, proper ho-ho-ho’s, leads them in the Sidewalk Santa Pledge and finally, presents them with a diploma.
Sidewalk Santa 1960s


The popularity of Sidewalk Santa increases in the 1960s. Celebrity supporters of Sidewalk Santa include Lucille Ball, Pat Boone, Victor Borge, Angie Dickenson, Angela Lansbury, Robert Morse, Robert Preston, and David Frost.

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Sidewalk Santa during the 1990s


The Sidewalk Santa program welcomes its first female Santa--Muriel Burrell. Burrell has a prominent position stationed outside Macy's on 34th Street, calling out "Happy Holidays!" to all who pass by. "I'm the Miracle on 34th Street!" jokes Burrell.
Sidewalk Santa during the 2000s


New York's Sidewalk Santa campaign celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2002, beginning a second century of helping those who are hungry during the holidays. Kick-off day includes a parade through New York City’s Times Square and an appearance on NBC's Today Show. Later in the season, Sidewalk Santa rings the opening bell for the American Stock Exchange.

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Sidewalk Santa today


In recent years, we have reduced our “working” Sidewalk Santas and have turned primarily to our virtual Sidewalk Santa on the Web. While there may only be just a few Sidewalk Santas ringing their bells on city street corners today, what has not changed is the purpose of the campaign – helping our neighbors in need.