“You can’t fool me, there ain’t no sanity clause.”

Chico Marx in “Night At The Opera”

My first in-the-flesh Santa Claus was my half-brother Harry, the product of a previous engagement my father had with someone named Mae Cook. Harry was “troubled.” The trouble came in a bottle.

Harry, who my mother denied knowing, even to her last breath, fell through the kitchen door on Christmas Eve the year I was 6 years old.

Harry, in full Santa dress, wasn’t even supposed to be there. He was supposed to be working as Skeeter O’Neal’s saloon Santa.

This is the way Christmas worked in South St. Louis in the ’30s. Every saloon or tavern had its own Santa. This was a tradition that started when my mother was a girl and her two cousins, the Brady boys, had the best saloons on Marceau Street and the finest, fattest Santas.

These weren’t “sit-on-Santa’s-lap” Santas. They were hired to give out gifts of cigars, small hip pocket bottles of whiskey and cigarettes to loyal Democratic patrons.

At first there was the “traveling Santa,” a loner who made the rounds. That Santa started out long before I was born, with one Santa who made the rounds of all the saloons from Marceau Street up to St. Columbkille church basement, plowing through snow and ice with his bag on his shoulder.

This historic tidbit came, as usual, from Rosie Chambers, who lived with her sister Delia (my mother said they weren’t really sisters and that’s all that will be said about that) and a canary at the foot of Davis Street by the river. Rosie loved Jesus and whiskey sours. Rosie, whom my father sponsored over from Ireland, was the midwife at my birth. Rosie, whom I always called “Aunt Rosie,” ran a small “confectionery” that sold groceries illegally on Sundays.

She was immune from prosecution because she supplied Christmas cheer from her back room to beat cops. True story.

Rosie, who fed me penny candy and tea with milk until I was in the eighth grade, would let me sip from her glass of whiskey sours, and was full of great stories, including the gory details of my birth.

I think everything I remember today, everything I write about, came from sitting on Rosie’s swiveling piano stool in her parlor, where we often listened to “My Gal Sunday,” the soap opera, on her radio.

Rosie told me that the saloons finally picked their own Santas from friends because, she said, the traveling Santa never made it past the first two saloons. In fairness, I should add that my mother, who worried about my father’s fondness for Rosie, said every word out of Rosie’s mouth was a lie.

I think that for a long time, I truly believed in Santa Claus. A radio station in St. Louis had an afternoon Santa radio show from 4 to 4:30, and if you sent in a penny postcard with your name on it, and Santa picked it from his mail bag, he would read your name on the air. My sister Eileen filled one out for me and sent it in. I remember listening for two weeks, until Santa finally spoke my name, only he pronounced it “Deveen.” My mother was horrified, but for me, Santa lived.

I kept the Santa myth alive for my girls, even when they began rolling their eyes. It’s probably silly, but when one starts one’s Catholic boyhood at birth, believing in a bearded old white man sitting on a throne in the clouds surrounded by cute angels, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine a bearded old white man in a red suit being flown by reindeer.

Of course, my childhood Christmases were full of images of both: God the father on the church calendar, and Santa on every magazine ad from Coca Cola to Lucky Strike cigarettes, including my particular favorite, the Santa with the scantily clad girl on the calendar in the back of Vogt’s Car Repair Garage. Thank you, Bill Vogt.

And thank you, Aunt Rosie, for the licorice whips, the chocolate drops, the sips of whiskey sours and the many Christmas stories from Ireland, particularly the ones I promised never to tell.

See you on the other side, Aunt Rosie, and Merry Christmas.

J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer.


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