Thursday, December 16, 2010

My Favorite Santa

When I was about 6 years old, my 4-year-old brother and I were stunned, shocked, flabbergasted, dumbfounded and I might even go as far as to say our breath was literally taken away. What could cause these reactions in two so young?

Santa Claus came to visit us at home on Christmas Eve.

I can still remember very clearly watching him walk through our front door on Reedland Street in Southwest Philadelphia. And, thankfully, just in case that memory starts to fade we have home movies of the whole event – Danny and I agog in our pajamas (I think Danny even had a nightcap on, in the style of Ebeneezer Scrooge.)

He explained that he wanted to come by to congratulate us personally on being such good boys all year, but couldn't stay long because he was about to go out on his rounds. We totally understood. He had small gifts for mom and dad and a whole bunch of aunts and uncles who just happened to be visiting when Santa did. It was truly thrilling to see him, and even more so when he came through with everything we'd hoped for on Christmas day.

Now, that's definitely a hard act to follow, but oddly enough, he's not my favorite Santa.

That honor goes to my good friend Wayne.

He and I went to school together and we both worked at Gino's in Collingdale when we were 16. Now, I think that Wayne was born looking 15 and just aged normally from there. And that's really at the heart of how he got chosen to play Santa at Gino's – he fit the suit.

We were making around $1.25 per hour under some sort of 1970s federal program called “sub-minimum wage.” Work at Gino's could be fairly strenuous, whether sweating over the hot grill or (especially) cleaning the Kentucky Fried Chicken pots. So when Wayne was offered three times sub-minimum to sit in a chair and pretend to like children, well – he agreed faster than you can say “Ho, ho, ho.” (Which it turned out he was really great at saying. One of the best I've heard til this day.)

His first few days were uneventful. He was a little self-conscious to start, but he found his rhythm pretty quickly. Aside from getting peed on twice, Wayne considered this the best job he'd ever had. (We should note for the record that his low-pay/hard work regular Gino's gig was the only other job he'd ever had.)

Then one foggy Christmas Eve …

I got a phone call from Wayne. He sounded kind of funny. He said he needed a ride from Gino's, or more accurately from the bar a few doors down from Gino's. Uh-oh.

Here's his story, and I'll leave it to you to decide on its plausibility:

He's leaving Gino's around 5 p.m., as innocent as the day he was born. Just as he's about to get into his car (to go to church in his original version, a detail he later dropped) a gentleman about to enter the tavern yelled to him, “Hey, Santa, come on in and let me buy you a beer!”

Of course, no one ever expects Santa to be 16. And no 16-year-old could ever resist sneaking into the adult world in such a perfect disguise. What was he to do other than have a beer?

Maybe it's out of guilt for being there, but it seems that buying Santa a beer (and shots) is a very popular idea among Christmas Eve bar patrons. The drinks were lined up before him like liquid frankincense and myrrh.

Wayne had the good sense to call for a ride and I had a great Santa story to tell over and over.

He went on to buy his own suit (or permanently borrow Gino's, I never found out which), and play Santa for many years to come. Once he was even helicoptered into the King of Prussia Mall.

One day he was running late and forgot his white gloves, which sort of led to him forgetting to remove one other thing. This resulted in my second favorite Wayne as Santa story.

No one near the main entrance of the MacDade Mall knew quite what to say when one observant little boy looked at the ring on Santa's right hand and shouted out, “Look, mom, Santa Claus went to Monsignor Bonner High School just like daddy!”

After that, Wayne pinned the white gloves to the Santa suit sleeves.


  1. I was a true believe in Santa way passed the point when a kid should know better. (In fact, if my father hadn't finally taken be aside to tell me the "facts of life", I'm sure I'd still be a believer.) And why wouldn't I have fist fights with Loretta Osso in the name of Santa? I had proof.

    Ever year Santa Claus called me on the phone and we would chat. He would tell me how busy he was and I would tell him how good I was. My parents told me years later that the Santa on the phone had actually been Mr. Brophy, a close friend of the family. Yeah, right, like I'm going to believe that!


  2. Parents can be so mean, Lori. Let's start re-believing together!