Mystery Santa

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Who IS that, behind the famously fluffy white beard?

That’s what our customers were asking back in 1999, when our holiday catalog arrived with Mystery Santa on the cover.

We asked them to guess which celebrity we’d disguised as Santa. Our way of “mixing some mystery with the merriment,” as we put it. In fact, it was a double mystery, with two celebrities in disguise – half our customers got a lovely female version, the other half a jolly male version without the specs.

The whole idea was the brainchild of Lee Eisenberg, the Lands’ End creative chief who’d mastered the art of intriguing cover ideas in a previous incarnation as editor of Esquire Magazine.

To help get our customers guessing, we offered the following (fairly obtuse) hints:  “One of our Santas is renowned for flying high and far. The other is an illustrious performer with crowning achievement to his/her credit.”

Huh? No wonder customers were stumped. The guesses flooded in to landsend.com – obviously our customers and their kids were having fun with the idea. But as near as we can remember, no one figured out who either of our Mystery Santas was.

Can you guess, as you look at those 1999 covers?

We’ll let you in on the secret. That’s basketball legend Larry Bird at left, actress Rene Russo at right.

“What was great about Larry was he came in all business-like and in a hurry, then seemed to just transform into Santa,” recalls Michele Casper, Lands’ End PR chief who was on that shoot. “I’ll never forget the twinkle in his eye.”

And Rene? “She got into the role so much, she even wore her Santa suit to pick up her kids at school!”

As a thank you for being such gracious good sports, Lands’ End donated a substantial amount of children’s clothing to Rene and Larry’s favorite children’s charities. Which hopefully made Christmas that much brighter for a lot of very deserving kids.

“We got so many customer letters about Mystery Santa,” says Michele.  “People were touched by the charity aspect of it, and excited because Lands’ End had never done anything with celebrities before.”

We had other Mystery Santas in later years – Rob Reiner, Lyle Lovett and Ty Pennington, all of whom were terrific – but that first time is the one you always remember, right?

Who knows, we may even bring Mystery Santa back. Everybody loves to play the sleuth. So keep your gum shoes and your magnifying glass handy!

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