Times were lean in 1974. In fact, it had been a rough year all around. In the first months of that annus horribilis, the Arab oil embargo still had gas lines wrapped around the block for hours on end. Then, as we sweltered through August, President Nixon resigned in the wake of the Watergate scandal, leaving the country in a state of political shock. By year’s end the inflation rate had run up to 11.3%.
For me, a new arrival in Boston from St. Louis, though spirits were high, money in the kitty was low, meaning no trip back home for the holidays. But then a friend called, and said a friend of hers was in charge of seasonal hiring at Filene’s Department store in downtown Boston, and would I like an appointment?
Stepping off the Red Line subway train at Park Street station beneath Boston Common amidst the bustle of the holiday crowd, I could make out the plaintive strains of Harrry Chapin’s Cat’s in the Cradle spilling out of a passerby’s boom-box, as Harry’s hit held down the #1 slot on the Billboard charts that Christmas week. Up the escalator, then two cobblestone blocks later I was in Downtown Crossing at Filene’s flagship store sitting opposite my potential benefactress.
“Most of the Christmas jobs have already been filled,” she informed me as she paged through a sheaf of forms. “But we do have an opening for a second shift Santa in the toy department.”
“Ho, Ho, Ho!,” I boomed in my best broadcaster’s voice, hoping that would offset my very un-Santa-like six-foot, 160-pound frame. Next thing I knew I was being fitted with a pillow-enhanced Santa outfit, and a Lysol-soaked Santa’s beard.
As I sat upon Santa’s throne on my first day on the job, elves at my feet, the store stood resplendent in its holiday dress, the line of children and their parents stretched as far as the eye could see. At first, I found it entertaining to take the little tykes upon my lap, ask them how they’d been that year, and follow on with what they’d like for Christmas. I quickly realized, however, that most children, especially the young ones whose parents most wanted a picture with Santa, were not only timid about coming near, much less touching Santa, many were downright afraid of the oddly-shaped, oddly-clad, oddly-odored Mr. Claus.
Crying, squirming, and outright bawling became the norm as I attempted to quiet their fears and hold them close enough for the photographer to snap the prize-winning $12.95 photo for the family scrapbook. On occasion, a particularly wigged out tot would pee on Santa’s lap. When it all became too much, I’d excuse myself with “Well, time go feed the reindeer up on the roof.”
A solid week of this Santa impersonating went by. I knew I’d reached my limit when instead of sugar plums, the smell of Lysol and urine invaded my dreams. Then one day after seeing the line of children awaiting me stretch off into the distance as I awaited my shift in the Santa green room, it came to me while reading Carl Yung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections, my Ah-Hah! moment of clarity.
After spritzing on a last coat of Lysol to protect me from the previous germ-toting Santa, and inserting that morning’s Boston Herald under my Santa pantaloons to protect me from the bladder challenged members among generation Y, I trudged up to my throne. As the first of what would be 100s of tykes took his place upon my lap, I began my newly enhanced line of inquiry.
“Ho, Ho, Ho, and what’s your name, little boy?”
“Well, tell me Charlie, have you been a good boy this year?”
“Yes,” he replied shyly with just a hint of trepidation, like he knew that I knew that he knew that I knew.
“Well, Charlie, you know it is my job to keep track of these things, and I can assure you that you have, indeed, been a very good little boy this year. So, don’t be shy, okay?”
And with that, I gazed out into the sea of expectant faces, both young and old, and declared for all to hear, especially the parents, “And Charlie, because I know you’ve been a very good boy this year, I, as Santa, the one who decides who’s been naughty or nice, can now inform you that you will get everything you want this year for Christmas. Every! Last! Thing!”
I allowed my gaze to linger until the full meaning of my declaration gained purchase with the entire audience, at which time I could see the line begin to evaporate from the rear.
“Honey,” I could hear one parent declare, “I think he looks too thin to be the real Santa. Let’s go over to Jordan Marsh.”
My days as Santa didn’t quite make it through the entire holiday season in 1974. When the college kids who had taken Quaaludes started coming around displaying the lack of skeletal rigidity necessary to remain seated upright on my lap, I threw in my beard.
Fortunately, I had made just enough to buy a plane ticket home to visit the family.
In 1975 I took up the sport of running, and never looked back, nor seriously entertained the idea of reprising the Santa role, nor mounting a serious portrayal of any of the other Holiday icons. But bad Santa or not, I always welcomed the chance to don the robes at least once.
“By the way. What’s that fragrance you’re wearing?” asked the folks when I returned home for that Christmas of `74.
“Oh! that. It’s called Ho! Ho! Lysol and Urine,” I replied. “Got it at Filene’s.”
Merry Christmas to one, Merry Christmas to all.
(First published Dec. 23, 2011)