While the real Santa Claus lives in the North Pole, there have been countless men across the world and throughout the ages who have portrayed Father Christmas in order to bring joy to children. Lawrenceville has had its fair share of such gentlemen.

    The Lawrenceville tradition started sometime after the Civil War with John George Lauer. Born in 1837, Lauer was a German immigrant who came to America with his parents while he was still a child. At the age of 15, Lauer went into business for himself selling toys. By the 1870s, he was very successful. His store had several locations before settling at 206 Market Street Downtown. His residence, 230 44th Street, was razed in the 1930s in order to build Holy Family Church.

    Boys Club Christmas Party of 1964 (Archives of the Boys and Girls Club of Western Pennsylvania).

    Boys Club Christmas Party of 1964 (Archives of the Boys and Girls Club of Western Pennsylvania).

    Lauer sat on the board of several orphanages. Moved by the plight of the orphans, he started loading his wagon full of toys from his store on Christmas Day and delivered the toys to orphanages across the city. This inspired J. M. Gusky, another toy merchant, to follow suit. The Gusky Orphanage for Jewish Children was named in his honor.

    Although Gusky didn’t live in Lawrenceville, his son, Al, did, and he took over the tradition of delivering toys to orphans after his father was no longer able to do so.

    Unfortunately, nobody I questioned can remember what Santa’s “real” name was when he came to the Carnegie Library’s Lawrenceville Branch during its Christmas celebration. Even more unfortunate is that jolly old Saint Nick hasn’t come there for years.

    The Boys and Girls Club on Butler Street also no longer sponsors Santa’s visits, but this was not always the case. Prior to the admission of girls in 1983, the facility at the corner of 45th and Butler Street was the Boys Club. Christmas parties there most likely extended back to 1928. During the 1960s, the club threw some whopper Christmas parties. According to the club’s records, 1,200 boys were often entertained on that day. It was astonishing how they jammed that many boys into the relatively small gymnasium. There were cartoons, singing, and a movie—and when Santa came, each child received a gift and a stocking. The gentlemen playing Santa included Sam Wold, Joe Tutich, and Lenny Gostomowski.

    One Christmas season years ago the Lawrenceville Citizen’s Council needed a Santa, and Emilia Crowley recruited Ed Pilewski for the job. Ed’s portly build, friendly manners, and jovial disposition made him an ideal candidate. He even had his own Santa suit. When he arrived at the old St. Augustine auditorium on 37th Street, the children were eager to sit on his lap. Present at the party were a small boy and his sister, who were afraid to approach Santa. When Pilewski asked them why they didn’t come over to Santa, their mother explained that they had just arrived in the United States from Poland and couldn’t speak English. When Santa suddenly addressed the children in Polish, they were overwhelmed with awe. I guess Bobby Vinton got it right when he sang, “Santa must be Polish.” Yes, Hollywood had the movie Miracle on 34th Street, but Lawrenceville had its real miracle on 37th Street.

    There is another great Christmas story that took place on 37th Street. R. J. was about four years old and very depressed one holiday season. He had undergone several operations and knew he had to go back for more. Although the family went all out to bring him out of his depression, nothing seemed to help. No amount of cookies, candy canes, bright lights, or decorations helped the situation. He was visiting his grandparents on 37th Street when there was a knock on the door. Suddenly, the house was filled with a small child’s excited voice yelling, “Santa, you came! You came!” A very intoxicated Santa walked into the house to shake the boy’s hand. Santa told him to go to bed early because he was coming back later that night. As the drunken Santa left the house, he wished everyone a “Merry Christmas,” apologized to the adults that he came to the wrong house, and disappeared into the night.

    Today, the Lawrenceville United organization continues to brighten the Christmas season by providing Santas for the annual Lawrenceville Cookie Tour. And although I’m no Santa, I do have a simple gift for each of you. It’s my wish that all of you have the best Christmas ever.

    Jude Wudarczyk has coauthored four books on Lawrenceville history. His articles have been published in various newsletters, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, international journals, and The Strip! magazine.