BAINBRIDGE ISLAND — It can seem we live in an age in which the internet has accustomed us to snark and Twitter sarcasm. Then you meet someone like Jane Brand.
There she is: Unfiltered cheerfulness without a hint of irony, who in 1970 began a family holiday tradition and has kept going every year.
Monday marked 50 years in a row that her family had a group photo taken with Santa Claus. In our dispersed society, it’s hard enough to get immediate family together for anything. But 50 years? In a row?
It has meant Jane and Stan Brand’s grown children had to fly in from various locales, including England, the Caribbean, the East Coast.
“I don’t think any of us ever thought of skipping it. It was something we did,” says Emily Brand Goehring, 39, the youngest of Jane and Stan Brand’s children and a risk-management attorney for Amazon in Seattle.
But then Brand, 71, just can’t help but go all out during the holidays.
“I’m always ready for Christmas. People are so much nicer,” she says.
You walk into the Brand’s home on Bainbridge Island and you’re instantly engulfed in that holiday spirit. Just inside the front door is a display of the Santa pictures for each of those five decades. Above them is a sign that reads, “We believe … in Santa Claus” — as if there was any doubt.
There’s something else about the Brand’s family tradition.
Their photos are a direct connection to the man credited with inventing the department store Santa photograph.
That would be Art “Happy” French, who years ago started the practice of taking department store photos with Santa at the old Frederick & Nelson. For generations, the Seattle-based store was associated with the slogan, “Christmas is not Christmas without a visit to Frederick & Nelson.”
Although department store Santas had been around for decades, it well might have been at Frederick & Nelson that the first department store Santa photo was taken.
An article in the March 4, 1946, issue of Time magazine deemed the Frederick & Nelson Santa photos newsworthy. It told how French, an enterprising former Seattle Post-Intelligencer photographer, grew “tired of being chased out on sorts of assignments by ‘them stupid bastards on city desk.’ ”
In newsroom tradition, French was nicknamed “Happy,” says the story, “because he never looked it.”
Among French’s enterprising newsroom efforts were producing “better memorable snowstorm photos than his rivals” by “splattering ink on his negatives.”
In 1943, seeing a long line of kids trying to get into Frederick & Nelson to see Santa, French had that proverbial Eureka moment.
He took a leave of absence from the P-I and began taking “candid shots of muppets on Santa’s knee, at $1 print,” says the Time story. He did so much business he had to hire 15 helpers to deal with lines that “blocked traffic.”
He quit the P-I, figuring that in five weeks he had netted more than $10,000 — $141,000 in today’s dollars.
That’s where the Brands come in. Their Santa photos have all been taken in some manner associated with Frederick & Nelson. The only time they did not was in 1971 and 1972, when Stan was in the Navy and the couple visited the Santa at Camp Pendleton in California.
After French died in 1962, Hazel and Kenneth Viydo bought his Frederick & Nelson Santa-photo business. It has continued in the family since then, eventually taken over by their son, Hillard Viydo.
When Frederick & Nelson closed in 1992 and its content were sold, the Viydo family bought the “Cozy Cloud Cottage” and the Santa chair and fake fireplace that were used in those photos. That original set now part of the Santa photos taken at the Town Center at Lake Forest Park, continuing the tradition.
The Brand family tradition has followed the Santa setting there.
In 1970, the first year of the photos, Jane and Stan were boyfriend and girlfriend. She still has the red coat she wore that day. An unabashed sentimentalist, she wore it for Monday’s photo.
As the years passed, the sequence of photos continued with the two of them, now married, and their dog, Woofer, a cockapoo. Then it continued to show the couple and their first child, Erik Brand, now 44, a Bellevue sports medicine doctor.
Erik is later joined in the Santa photos by a brother, Kristian Brand, now 42, a San Francisco commercial real estate attorney.
Then comes along Emily. The latest photos include grandkids, as well as Butter, the couple’s current dog.
On Monday, the group — seven adults, three grandkids and Butter, waited in line with 100 or so people, everyone posed, and Jane smiled and said, “Thank you, Santa.”
Stan Brand, 76, a retired dentist, says being festive around Christmas is part of their Scandinavian heritage. But he admits, if it wasn’t for Jane, the Santa pictures wouldn’t have gone on for 50 years.
This is a woman who has kept a Christmas tree decoration she made as an 11-year-old by using string to go around tacks on a board in the shape of a tree. This is a woman who kept little teddy bears given to kids at Frederick & Nelson Christmas breakfasts.
Jane Brand talks about this being the last year for arranging the group Santa pictures. It’s a lot of work, she says.
Her daughter doesn’t believe it.
“I can’t imagine we’d ever stop doing this,” she says, because, you know, it’s Christmas. Accept it.
Correction: In an earlier version of this story, Stan Brand’s first name was misspelled.