There are pictures around somewhere, ancient snapshots taken with even more ancient box Kodaks, of me sitting in some Great Depression-era Santa’s lap. I do remember my first visit to Santa. It began in the caged elevator of Famous Barr Co. in St. Louis, somewhere around 1938.
Santa was on the fifth floor for some reason, and I was stuffed into that elevator, clutching my mother’s blue velvet gloved hand and drowning in a sea of giants all swathed in wet wool. Cursed with almost total recall, I remember looking down at a man wearing brown-and-white spectator shoes — in December, mind you. I think it was the first time I was aware of how aware I was of style violations.
We waited in line with other parents and kids, and then there I was on the Great Man’s lap. I think he really did say, “Ho ho ho.”
Then I was sent to a decorated wall with a big brass slot, and a voice asked, “Boy or girl?”
My mother said, “boy,” and a gift slid out.
I don’t remember what it was. Even total recallers suffer an occasional lapse. I do remember telling Mom that Santa had “Christmas breath.” That was what my father and uncles had every Christmas Eve. Eau de Southern Comfort.
At some point they stopped taking me to visit Santa. I think Mom got bored, and we often stopped in the dress department and a quick visit to the toy department.
After that, the treat was lunch. We had the choice of a Chinese cafe for my mother’s favorite, chop suey and rice, or Popeye’s Hamburger Cafe, where I could get a Wimpy burger with a wooden Wimpy stick stuck in it. The very elderly will remember that. I got the burger. And here’s the funny part: Santa walked in, big and red-and-white and burly, and was greeted by the waitress, who probably knew who he was, and, yes, he shouted, “Ho ho ho,” and went straight to the men’s room.
Other Santas filled my life for many years, each with a different story. There was the skinny Santa who roamed the neighborhood business streets the week before Christmas. Some of us followed him around until we were told not to. He kept pulling his padded belly up. You don’t forget things like that.
Years later, my brothers told me that it was Pete Vogt, a fireman from the station house on the corner. I had a re-sighting of Santa Pete on Christmas Eve, when my father sent me over to Skeeter O’Neil’s corner saloon to pick up a special package. “Don’t drop it,” I was told.
There was Santa, sitting in the last of the high-backed wooden booths, far from sight, having a beer with the lady who sold tickets at the Michigan Avenue Movie Theater. You don’t forget things like that, either.
My Uncle Jack played Santa one year during the war, when he was too old to join the navy. My father had died the spring before, and everyone was hell-bent to make sure that my baby sister and I had a good Christmas and would not think about my father not being there.
Yes, he had “Christmas breath.” Jack had Christmas breath on Halloween and Easter, too. Good old Jack. He was one of those people I never want to forget.
There was the my first and last black Santa, a staff sergeant on the base at the 6403rd Squadron at Fuchu, in Japan. I can’t remember his name, but he was in charge of the officers’ club, and had all the required girth and, yes, chimed, “Ho ho ho,” as he walked into the mess hall.
My last Santa would be the one that I, and my friend the late, great comic Dom Deluise, worked for at Macy’s in Manhattan. We were elves. You can imagine.
My Christmas times with my children were always special, because like all of us, we worked really hard to recreate the memories of our great ones for them and to keep them from the pain of the bad ones.
I think we have always succeeded. Thankfully, they’ve never had a bad one; but then, they never had the fun of Uncle Jack, or seeing Santa go to the men’s room, have a beer at Skeeter O’Neil’s or be horrified by the sight of spectator shoes in December.
Life is not perfect. Goodnight to all of you Santas everywhere, and thanks for the memories. Ho ho ho.
J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer.