The story of “Daddy” Cohen, Philadelphia’s Santa Claus (and a light to thousands of children)
To all our Jewish readers: Happy Hanukkah! This year, the Festival of Lights synchs up with Christmas, so the Holidays may feel extra festive and inclusive. In this spirit we present Bob McNulty’s true story from Philly History: the tale of Harry “Daddy” Cohen, a Jewish man who was a real-life Santa Claus for sick and forsaken children in the early 1900’s.
Harry’s life started out uneventfully enough: a son of German immigrants (the eldest of nine) living by the Delaware waterfront, not far from where Penn Treaty Park is today. His father worked his way from street peddler to commercial merchant. The family belonged to the Congregation Mikveh Israel and the Elim Lodge of the Independent Order of B’nai B’rith, and owned a home on N. Front Street.
Harry launched a shoe business in the late 1800’s, and soon married Sadie Glass and settled in West Philly. Though Sadie was Christian, she agreed to raise their two children in the Jewish faith, but in addition the family celebrated Christmas as well. Harry recognized that you didn’t need to believe in Jesus to appreciate the caring, giving spirit of the season. He loved seeing the joy on his kids’ faces, too! The whole world just seemed happier, to Harry’s delight.
Life was good! By 1906, the family had moved to a smart Parkside Ave rowhome, overlooking Fairmount Park. Harry and Sadie became known as generous local benefactors – a real power couple – until Sadie was stricken with tuberculosis in 1917. When she died three years later, Harry was unmoored and depressed.
Months passed and his grief wasn’t budging. Harry knew he had to do something. He asked himself, What would Sadie do? In a flash, he was planning a 4th of July picnic for 75 children from city orphanages at George’s Hill in Fairmount Park. Harry provided the food, amusements, and transportation. The kids had a blast but for Harry it was a revelation. His life now had a new purpose, and for the rest of his days he would spend his fortune bringing smiles to people in need.
Harry embarked on his mission with gusto! That Thanksgiving, he distributed 130 food baskets, and then on Christmas he took 100 poor kids to the Hotel Hanover for a big meal, with an orchestra playing carols and a wrapped gift for everyone. He was just getting started.
Over the years, Harry would host summertime shindigs for city children, with free flags, souvenirs and ice cream. Halloween costume parties at Morris Park. Come Christmas, he’d be driving car-loads of toys to area hospitals; three months later, he’d be dropping off Easter baskets. His annual holiday dinners at the Hotel Hanover kept getting bigger and bigger, too. Soon he was welcoming 200, 300+ children. No wonder people started calling him “Daddy,” as his good deeds spread throughout the city.
Sadly, Christmas 1923 would be Harry’s last holiday dinner. He wasn’t feeling great but took a short trip anyway, where he collapsed and died of pneumonia that January. He was buried next to Sadie at Mt. Sinai Cemetery. Upon his death in 1924 at the age of 71, the Philadelphia Public Ledger published an evocative tribute to this man they called an “institution” and “annual tradition”:
On Christmas Day, a strange procession capered to the tune of a band down Chestnut Street. Ragged boys and girls, skipping along, hand in hand, with red, chapped knuckles and broken shoes. Children who had no overcoats and whose worn clothing was a thin threadbare covering against the cold. If there had been snow in the air and slush underfoot, those pinched, dirty faces would have grinned as merrily. For those boys and girls were going to “Daddy” Cohen’s Christmas dinner…
Children who couldn’t walk watched on from cars as the group made their way to a grand feast that they’d never enjoy again because Daddy Cohen was gone. “He is dead,” the announcement reads, lamenting that the children will have a hard time understanding how someone so kind and fun could be taken from them. “They will miss him for they loved him. What finer thing can be said of a man than that?”
Say what you will about the “reason for the season,” but Harry Cohen’s life demonstrates that Christmas spirit is universal – you don’t need to believe to participate in the holiday magic around us. With love and joy for all. 🌟💖🌈
Get the Full Story!
This post is an encapsulation of a much longer article researched and written by the wonderful Bob McNulty. Originally published December 16, 2014. Please click through for full text with details & narrative flair that bring this important local history to life.
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