Christmas Mother

The Christmas Mother tradition is all Virginia’s. And here’s the surprising story of how it started.

(Illustration by Van Saiyan)

You might get the impression she is everywhere at once. Here she is smiling with the Kiwanis club president. There she is at the Rotary Club breakfast. She’s talking on local morning television and quoted in the paper. She’s at the Holly Ball, the Centennial parade—and look, here comes Santa and the marching band, and there she is again.

She’s the Christmas Mother and she’s the public face of a holiday tradition peculiar to Virginia.

Established in 1935 by the Richmond Times-Dispatch as a charitable giving campaign, the Christmas Mother tradition has, since then, been adopted by charitable organizations throughout the state.

So now, instead of one, there are at least a dozen Christmas Mothers in Virginia each year. And while the specifics vary on how she is chosen, when you’re tapped for this gig, it’s all Christmas all the time.

When Blanche Moore stepped into the role of Henrico Christmas Mother, she recalled the advice of former Mothers: get your own Christmas shopping done during the summer. After that, you won’t have time.

Because who wants to be even busier in the heat of the holiday season? The Christmas Mother, that’s who.

SEEKING GOOD FELLOWS

(First Christmas Mother, Anne Traylor Larus)

But where did this tradition come from? And why a Christmas Mother? Do you even have to be a mother? On that point, the answer is: not always. In 2014, when Barry Vassar was voted Christmas Mother of Crewe-Burkeville, he joked, “I’m on a committee with nine women and they nominate the man.” 

To unravel the rest of this mistletoed mystery, however, we must look back to 1902 and—here’s a surprise—the offices of the Chicago Tribune.

That December, the paper published an appeal “to the ‘Good Fellows’ of Chicago” to rectify a tragic wrong: “Last Christmas morning over 5,000 children woke to an empty stocking—and the bitter pain of disappointment that Santa Claus had forgotten them.” But if the city’s Good Fellows would “address Santa Claus” in care of the Tribune, they would be supplied the names and addresses of one or more needy children to whom they might deliver gifts on Christmas Eve.

The anonymous proposer of this scheme, the paper assured its readers, was an ordinary fellow who “takes a drink, cusses a bit, and even goes out at night with the boys for a mild good time”—not exactly 1902’s idea of matron material—but who each year took it upon himself to deliver gifts to 15 or 20 children, as he hoped other Chicago good fellows would do.

And apparently they did, in droves. The Tribune needed a staff of 12 just to handle the volume of requests from Good Fellows looking to help. That first Christmas, the stockings of some 15,000 children were filled.

A MOTHER IS BORN

Soon, Good Fellow clubs began springing up around the country, often sponsored by a newspaper, and in December of 1914, the Richmond Times-Dispatch received its own anonymous letter to the editor—signed “Anxious”—that called for the formation of a Good Fellow Club “for the needy of this city.”

By 1924, the wish of “Anxious” appears to have been fully realized; a December appeal in the Times-Dispatch called on the Good Fellows of Richmond to assure “every unfortunate child in the city a great Christmas.” 

By 1935, however, it seemed there was too much uncoordinated good-fellowing going on among multiple groups including the city’s other daily paper, the News Leader. In announcing that their various efforts would be unified in an “intensive campaign of joy,” the Times-Dispatch named the new initiative the “Christmas Mother” plan.

“Its intention is the same as any individual mother’s on the day of days—to see that each and all of the family are made happy,” the Times-Dispatch wrote, introducing the first of the Christmas Mothers, Anne Traylor Larus, wife of Lewis G. Larus, vice-president of Larus & Brother tobacco company.

And that, Virginia, is how we got a Christmas Mother.

“What most people don’t know,” says Ann Parker Gottwald, the 2018 Christmas Mother, “is that every dollar the fund receives is passed on in full to charitable groups that provide gifts and food to families in need—the Richmond Times-Dispatch staff works on this campaign for months and they don’t keep a penny.”

From Richmond, the tradition crept outward and planted itself further afield; there’s a Prince Edward Christmas Mother, an Essex County Christmas Mother, and an Alleghany Highlands Christmas Mother, among others.

Why the tradition has endured is easy to understand. The 2021 Richmond Christmas Mother, Petra Glover, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch, “It’s heartwarming, especially when you see how everybody in the community comes together and supports it.” Glover brings plenty of experience to the role. Her husband, Gary, is President and CEO of Puritan Cleaners, which has sponsored the annual Coats For Kids campaign for three decades.

Bath County’s Cherie Beale acknowledges she didn’t really know “how much work was involved” when she assumed the role in 2020—in the middle of a pandemic—while continuing with her full-time day job with the county’s department of social services.

But it was a “yes,” she didn’t regret, she says. “It was the best experience I have ever had.”


This article originally appeared in the December 2021 issue.

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