Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Harold Percival (Percy) Christmas (1884–1947)

by G. J. Abbott

This article was published:

Harold Percival Christmas (1884-1947), retailer, was born on 5 May 1884 at Kiama, New South Wales, eldest son of Robert Christmas, bank clerk and later manager, and his wife Mary Caroline, née King. He was educated at Neutral Bay Public School and in 1898-99 at Sydney Church of England Grammar School (Shore). Percy, as he was known, left school at 16 and became a junior and later a commercial traveller with Isherwood & Bartlett, softgoods wholesalers of Sydney. He was warehouse manager when he married Constance Veta Southouse (d.1914) on 28 March 1912 at St Philip's Church of England, Church Hill. In 1913 he became manager of the Adelaide branch, but returned to Sydney in 1916 to become a salesman for a Melbourne millinery manufacturer. On 16 January 1917 at St James's Church, Sydney, he married Thirza Millard Phillips.

By chance Christmas bought a book, The Clock Without Hands, thinking it would be a detective story: instead it was about the commercial benefits of advertising. A correspondence course convinced him that advertising was the key to successful retailing. In partnership with S. E. Chatterton, who had been a department manager in David Jones Ltd, he sold women's clothes by mail order. Less successful than they had hoped, about 1919 they opened a blouse and hosiery shop in the Queen Victoria Building, and used the slogan 'No Shop Rent', to convince customers that they could buy at lower prices. By 1924 the business had grown and more space was needed. They were offered basement space in the Imperial Arcade, which Christmas leased at a very low rent, although it was unsuitable for a dress shop. G. Creed from Melbourne suggested it could be used for retailing low cost, portable merchandise, patterned on the operation at Cash & Carry Ltd in Adelaide. Woolworths Ltd was registered in 1924, after the American company had indicated it would not object to the name. Christmas became managing director. On 5 December, following an advance advertising campaign, 'Woolworth's Stupendous Bargain Basement' opened. After overcoming a minor financial crisis, the company prospered.

Christmas was able to design and introduce new sales methods which attracted customers because of 'his wonderful understanding of how ordinary people thought and behaved'. He took great trouble about hiring staff and had applicants examined by a phrenologist. In 1928 he opened a second branch in Pitt Street, and introduced the distinctive red and white uniform for shop assistants who knew him as 'Father'. In the 1930s Christmas presided over the expansion of Woolworths into a chain store with companies registered in Victoria, Western Australia and New Zealand. In 1936 criticism of trade practices led to an inquiry by the Industrial Commission of New South Wales into the control and operations of chain stores. Two and a half years later Mr Justice Joseph Browne found that Woolworths' operations were in the best interests of the community.

During World War II Christmas was controller of the New South Wales division of the Australian Defence Canteens Service. Until he retired as managing director of Woolworths in 1945, he kept fit by swimming daily and filled his leisure by reading, sailing and farming at Cattai on the Hawkesbury River. He went overseas in April 1947 but died suddenly at Bordeaux, France, on 19 June, survived by a daughter of his first marriage and by his second wife and their son and daughter. His estate was sworn for probate at £405,091.

Select Bibliography

  • Draper of Australasia, 21 Dec 1908
  • G. Newton, ‘When Father Christmas ruled the store’, Australian Women Weekly, 4 Dec 1974
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 20 June 1947
  • records and public relations material (Woolworths Ltd, Sydney)
  • private information.

Additional Resources

  • probate, West Australian, 27 September 1947, p 9

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

G. J. Abbott, 'Christmas, Harold Percival (Percy) (1884–1947)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 23 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


5 May, 1884
Kiama, New South Wales, Australia


19 June, 1947 (aged 63)
Bordeaux, France

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.