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disaster averted

The forgotten story of Peter Paul Dolata and the worst Christmas ever

Meeting Santa can be a terrifying experience for children, but this time, an even bigger nightmare was avoided.

santacrop File photo of a Santa Claus in the era of Peter Dolata. AP AP

ALMOST EVERYONE HAS a childhood horror story about exploding into uncontrollable, inconsolable tears and screaming upon meeting Santa Claus.

Maybe you were in a dark and dingy corner of some shopping centre, or you were convinced you were on the naughty list, or the sheer awe of meeting an immortal supernatural being who makes your dreams come true every year, was overwhelming.

But on a December day many years ago, one group of excited kids avoided a true nightmare, when Santa never stepped on stage.

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As reported by the Pittsburgh Press the next day, a special Christmas party took place at the YMCA club on the east side of the city, on 15 December 1937.

Dozens of boys and girls from the Industrial Home for Crippled Children sang carols and demanded to get their presents from the man in red, a Peter P Dolata, 51.

He had reportedly been chosen for his “round, red cheeks, his physical build and his twinkling eyes.”

After joking around with the kids at a special dinner in the YMCA, where he lived, Santa slipped into a side room, and promptly dropped dead.

As word spread, another resident stepped up to the plate, and made this truly wonderful announcement.

“Boys and girls,” said John Hoop. “We have just had a long distance telephone call from Santa.”

He said he was sorry to disappoint you, but he’s very busy tonight and said he would probably be very late getting here, and for you not to wait for him this time.

The kids lined up and received their presents – no doubt bitterly disappointed, but protected from what would have been the Santa Claus horror story to beat them all.

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The bizarre demise of Santa Claus in Pittsburgh, 1937, appears to have been lost in the collective memory hole, until it was recently revived by a local Pittsburgh history Facebook page.

A bit of genealogical digging sheds some light on the man who deserves a place in the annals of Christmas ephemera.

Peter Paul Dolata was born 22 June 1886, in the German-occupied part of Poland, and emigrated to Pennsylvania with his parents, at the age of one.

His World War I draft card describes him as a “short and stout” 30-year-old man, with a wife and at least one child.

He worked for the Central District Telephone Company, and later Bell Telephone, for 31 years.


Dolata’s death cert, signed by his son, who shared his name, identifies his wife as Cecilia, and lists his cause of death as “cerebral haemorrhage.”

Peter Paul Dolata, the Santa Claus that time forgot, was 51 years old.

Read: Gardaí go hi-tech to combat Christmas tree thieves

More: This Santa letter was found stuffed up a chimney, 60 years after it was written

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