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History of the Holidays in Ottawa’s Original Downtown: Part 2 of 3

December 9, 2023

Welcome to the second installment in our three-part blog series regarding historical holiday traditions in and around Downtown Rideau! Over the course of its near 200-year history, Rideau Street and the surrounding area have hosted a multitude of businesses both small and large, the latter of which frequently consist of department stores that consider the holiday season to be the most important time of year for sales. This is not a recent tradition, either; pictures such as the one below indicate that this practice has been going on longer than one might expect!

There’s always been much more to Downtown Rideau than the sales in the stores, however. When taking a look back through time, there are instances in the history of Ottawa’s Original Downtown where business owners and city officials have been able to capture a bit of holiday magic and create an experience that echoes throughout the years that follow and into the present day. Read on to learn more about what could arguably be considered the predecessor to Ottawa’s Help Santa Toy Parade!

Murphy-Gamble’s on Sparks Street advertises a holiday special on their selection of Hoover vacuum cleaners, one of the hot-ticket items of the day, c. 1920. (Image: Historical Society of Ottawa, source )

1896: Santa Claus Rides a Streetcar into Ottawa’s Original Downtown

Toward the turn of the 19th century, Ottawa’s downtown core began to more closely resemble what it looks like today. All of the major retailers of the day had their role to play when the holiday season came around. Major department stores like A.J. Frieman’s and Ogilvy’s along Rideau Street as well as Bryson, Graham Ltd. on Sparks advertised special Christmas deals for consumers, with the latter dubbing itself the “Headquarters of Santa” and offering discounts on children’s toys such as trains, fire engines, dolls and board games. There were some in the city who sought to give the citizens of Ottawa something truly special that year, however; something that would create lifelong memories for the children of Ottawa as well as their families.

An article by The Historical Society of Ottawa illustrates how this aspiration was shared by two Ottawa-based entrepreneurs: Warren Soper and Thomas Ahearn. Soper enlisted the help of Ahearn, his business partner and owner of the Ottawa Electric Railway Company, to arrange for Santa Claus to make an appearance atop a streetcar alongside his reindeer and sleigh. Santa was to be paraded throughout town, starting at Sparks Street and making stops along Rideau, Bank and Laurier before he would have to leave and prepare for his visits to the homes of Ottawa children.

Thomas Ahearn (left) and Warren Soper (right) were the two Ottawa business magnates who saw to it that Santa visited the downtown core. (Image: Ottawa Citizen, source )

Announcements regarding Santa’s arrival in town were made in local publications such as the Ottawa Evening Journal and The Daily Citizen, detailing his itinerary as well as intention to distribute small gifts to the children in attendance. When Christmas Eve came, thousands of excited citizens began to congregate at the street intersections where Santa was due to arrive, hoping to catch a glimpse of Jolly Old Saint Nick.

And arrive he did! Santa’s journey through downtown began at 2:45 pm that afternoon and he came exactly as advertised, flanked by his trusty reindeer atop one of Ottawa’s streetcars which was itself decorated in garlands, a chimney and signs on either side that read “Merry X-Mas To All.” As he made his way across downtown, Santa distributed more than three thousand oranges to the children of Ottawa; oranges were more difficult to transport from their native warmer climates at the time and, as such, were regarded as quite the novelty.

Christmas Eve 1896, hundreds of citizens converge on Sparks Street in the hope of catching a glimpse of Santa atop one of Ottawa’s streetcars. (Image: The Historical Society of Ottawa, source )

Over time, the landscape of downtown Ottawa would continue to change, notably with the removal of streetcars from city streets and the closure of the Ottawa Electric Railway Company in 1959, to be eventually succeeded by OC Transpo. Thus, the Nation’s Capital was in the market for a new Christmas tradition – and it would find one in the Christmas trees that Ottawa families would leave outside their houses at the conclusion of the holiday season.

Santa’s streetcar as it appeared on that fateful Christmas Eve afternoon, 1896. (Image: The Historical Society of Ottawa, source )

Keep the spirit of Soper and Ahearn’s vision alive and make a donation to this year’s Help Santa Toy Parade? Or read our blog about Chef Ric Watson and his efforts to feed the hungry on Rideau Street during the holiday season!