Let’s get this out of the way right now. I’m a big fan of Santa Claus.

Yes, I know Christmas is about the birth of Christ. It’s a great and beautiful story, and except for my old friend Bernie Goldman, it’s one we all grew up with and have memorized.

But despite the annual reading of the Nativity in Sister Rosanna’s room each year, the Christmas week sermons, and the fact that I played six characters in six different Christmas pageants, Santa, for me, has refused to budge from being a central player in my Christmas.

I know, I know, there’s a place for me in the lowest chambers of hell.

Now, I don’t mean the iconic figure who mysteriously comes down the chimney we don’t have, who eats the cookies and drinks the milk we leave without saying thanks or good night.

I mean the big guy in the red woolen suit who has my father’s twinkly eyes and big laugh. From the moment I first saw him perched on his throne, I loved the big fella in the red coat and pants, the fluffy white beard and the tassel ball that hung down across his eyes.

The Santa of my heart, the one I grew up with, was the Coca-Cola Santa created by the great ad artist Haddon Hubbard “Sunny” Sundblom. Yes, that one.

My fondness for Santa grew with me through the years. As an actor, I was one of Santa’s elves, like at the May Co. Department store in Cleveland, Ohio (with comedian Dom Deluise, who was fired for constantly upstaging Santa in the window display).

I did it again in the ’50s in New York, where Santa was played by a heavily padded Sid Edelstein, an actor from the Bronx who, on the side, had a great career selling suits and sport coats out of the trunk of his car.

Where did Sid get them? Who knew? Who cared? He was Santa, and I bought four suits from him. If you’re still alive, Sid, Hanukkah sameach and ho ho ho.

The winter of 1938 I was 6 years old when word got out that Santa was coming to the basement of St. Mary and St. Joseph Church. Say what?

Usually, my sisters took me downtown to Famous and Barr to meet Santa, but now Santa was coming into my “hood.”

Well, it was as if Father Keating had announced that God himself was going to appear on the altar at our church, or more dramatically, Eleanor Roosevelt herself was coming to have a beer at Skeeter O’Neal’s on Christmas Eve with drinks on the house.

So a week before Christmas, we piled into the church basement, and we sat on Santa’s knees. My mother told me that to save time, Santa sat Mary Lister, she who gave me my first Valentine, on one knee, me on the other. On the way out, we were handed a large orange and carton of chocolate milk. I gave my orange to Mary; she gave me her chocolate milk.

A sidebar: Twenty years later on a snowy Christmas week when I was home on leave from the Air Force, Mary and I met in the lobby of the Melba movie theater, and she reminded me of that Christmas. Some things one never forgets.

Which brings me to this sad news, which you may have already heard.

It seems that along with the climate change deniers, grown adults, even worse, teachers, one in Montville, New Jersey, and another in Colonial Park Elementary in Massachusetts, have taken it upon themselves to tell children that there is no and, in fact, never was a Santa Claus.

I’m giving these teachers the benefit of the doubt when I suggest that perhaps they were people of faith who felt that Santa had for too long encroached on their idea of a deity. I understand.

As for myself, I kind of see Jesus, Beta O’Rourke, Barack Obama, and Santa Claus as kind of the same person — one big symbol of hope. Who could have a problem with hope? Besides, I like old guys who can still wear red.

J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer.

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