Santa and Fin

The author regrets she no longer has a photo of herself as Santa. Here, Santa — Tony Di Filipo — visits with Fintan Ryan, both of Chicagoland area’s South Side where the author grew up. 2012 photo by Ailish Murrihy Ryan

Precious Christmas Moments

by Anne E. O’Malley

I can’t remember all the toys and gifts I’ve received over the years at Christmas. What I do remember are precious moments or gifts of insight that something connected with the magic of the season has brought me.

Thinking back to Christmas Eve, 1969, which I spent among the ruins of Angkor Wat and Angkor Tom in Cambodia, I can close my eyes and vividly recall riding to midnight mass in a cycle-pousse, or cycle-drawn carriage. Wrapped in the shawl of tropical warmth, in the darkness of night, I attended Mass at a tiny chapel near the ancient ruins. The Catholic service had begun and standing room only was available outside the chapel, so my friends and I increased the congregation by three, in the shadows outside.

Somebody wound up an old Victrola inside the building and Christmas carols, sung in French, floated through the still night. Light, supplied by oil lamps inside the chapel, flickered unsteadily, spilling their soft, hazy light through the open windows and door onto those who squatted comfortably on the stairs, their shadows cast as oddly misshapen dwarfs.

Halfway around the world I had come to view the artful ruins of a former regime, the only remnants of a once powerful ruler. Yet close by, in a humble chapel, people gathered to celebrate the 1969th birthday of another king whose death had served only to increase his following. It is a thought I sometimes ponder at Christmas time.

Less exotic in location, but also thought provoking, was a much earlier Christmas, when I was 17 years old and broke with tradition.

From as early as I can remember, Christmas Eve on Whipple Street at my childhood home on the south side of Chicago was spent doing everything that normal people like our neighbors the Jablons, Jankowskis, Maiers, Vrunos, Locascios, Browns, Boyans and all the other folks on our block did over a period of several weeks. That meant cleaning house, buying and wrapping presents, praying for snow, cleaning the house again, buying and putting up a tree and going to confession and getting ready for midnight Mass. The foregoing should be considered as one long, tumultuous, continuous blur, like an undecipherable run-on sentence, for that is how I remember this compressed spurt of festive preparations.

Somewhere in the blur on Christmas Eve, my father would drag up from the basement a heavy wooden box that had but one purpose—to await the Christmas season each year and perform its duty of holding up the tree. It was a sturdy rectangle of about 14 inches by 12 inches with screw eyes fastened onto the top, at each corner.

The box was always accompanied by a thick metal triangular-shaped pot, the likes of which I have never before or since seen. Just thinking of it brings to mind the word “ironmonger,” and causes me to envision an extra from a King Arthur movie, pounding this pot into shape while sweating in his smithy.

My father would place this pot in the center of the wooden box, where it snugly touched three sides, lending the box more stability. Into the pot the Christmas tree would go and the show would begin.

In my memory, it is a frozen tableau. We are drawn into the living room, my mother, my three sisters and I. We cringe as one from the tension, then sigh as one with relief when the job is finished. We are sucked into the yearly scenario without escape.

My job was to stand, hold the tree at arm’s length for a very long time and adjust it in micrometers according to the directions given by everyone in the room. In Catholic school, we often had to do this type of extended-arm exercise in some pageant or other, so I was used to it.

When the tree was perfectly aligned, my father would take four pieces of wood, each with a small curve carved midway along its length and screw eyes at each end. He laid two pieces parallel on opposing sides of the tree, the curves snugged next to the tree. He laid the other two pieces of wood at right angles to and on top of the ones beneath.

Using wire, he’d link the screw eyes on the four pieces to screw eyes on the corresponding box ends. Once in place, these boards would force the tree to remain standing.

This was accompanied by a litany of curses that would make the Baby Jesus blush, for my father was not a patient man. The whole procedure repeated itself year after year after year.

I don’t know why it took so long, but it wasn’t until I was 17 that I caught the drift that A, we didn’t have to wait until Christmas Eve to buy the tree; B, I could go out and buy a tree by myself anytime; and C, a modern miracle was on the market that made it as simple as A-B-C to put up a Christmas tree in the home.

I saw it advertised on television, a three-legged pot with three screws that bit into the base of the tree, holding it upright. It could be done single-handedly, the advertisers boasted.

Further, it came with a drop cloth in snowy white plastic that adhered to the floor, creating a vacuum that prevented the whole shebang from keeling over. Best of all was the low, low price.

I did it. Without permission, armed with confidence and a few bucks, I broke with tradition. I bought the tree and the new pot and put it up in minutes. No more pageant-length arm extensions, no more iron-monger pot, no more screw-eyed box, and no more muss, fuss or bother.

It was so simple that my father actually missed the event. He walked into the living room after it was up, eyed it, and went over and shook it a little, proclaiming it wasn’t as sturdy as the wooden-box system.

He peered into the pot and saw the screws biting into the wood and said the tree wouldn’t stay fresh for long with the tree trunk pierced. And then, he half-smiled with a look he wore when he approved of something that he hadn’t come up with but could appreciate.

The battle of the Christmas tree was over. Peace could be had for a few bucks.

One thing I learned way earlier than 17 was that Santa Claus came in a lot of disguises. I strongly suspected Santa of being my mother’s kin, for Santa Claus, like my mother, had a penchant for not wrapping some of the gifts he left under the tree. I guess if you wait until Christmas Eve to do everything, it takes its toll.

No matter. We had Santas aplenty.

My Aunt Mimi was like Santa Claus to us every day.

And there was a beautiful lady named Marian, who would come every Christmas Eve when I was a young girl.

Marian would arrive wearing a beautiful smile, a beautiful coat over beautiful clothes, and carrying big, beautiful packages for me and my sisters that she couldn’t squeeze through the front door all at once.

One year, the packages held gorgeous, lifelike dolls. Another year they contained elegant robes. Always, the presents were ones my parents couldn’t afford on my father’s policeman’s salary.

Marian was a mystery to me. Once a year she would appear like some fairy princess with exquisite gifts tastefully wrapped and carefully chosen to delight any little girl.

It wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned why Marian brought us presents all those years we were growing up. Her father and my grandfather knew each other well, and during the Depression, my grandfather, who was one of the lucky ones who had a regular job, gave her family assistance.

Her father never forgot it, and she grew up learning never to forget it, and we were the beneficiaries of our grandfather’s kindness that had taken place years and years before we were even born.

In spite of all the Santas I had for role models, none ever dressed in the traditional Santa garb. It wasn’t until I belted on pillows, pulled on a great red suit, donned a white wig and beard, and stepped into Santa’s big black boots, that I had one of my biggest Christmas insights of all time.

I was on the board of a community hotline and we decided to operate a Rent-A-Santa program, using community notables as Santas and charging $100 a pop for their appearances at corporate and private parties.

It was someone else’s idea, but I designed the program, including a Santa training for these bigwig, would-be Santas. I described how Santa should act, issuing rules—Santa doesn’t drink, smoke, or chew gum.

I rehearsed with them the Santa laugh, and instructed them to keep the Santa suit pockets filled with red and white striped peppermint candies to give away. I dressed as Santa for the training, went through the regulations with them, and then changed back to my own clothes before heading home. Piece of cake.

I landed the first hotline Santa gig myself from another nonprofit organization I was a board member of. OK, so I wasn’t a bigwig, but I had access to the red suit and the hotline agreed to let me use it for free.

This time, I dressed as Santa at home because there was no private place at the party where I could change into the outfit. On the way, I remembered I needed film and stopped at the nearby supermarket.

Easy-breezy, I thought, in and out and I won’t bump into anyone who will recognize me. No need for conversations, greetings, just get the film and get going. Being in costume was a boon — I thought.

I had no sooner walked in the store than I magnetized every living thing under three feet, all of them unshakably clinging to my legs like the iron filings those tiny metal Scotty dog toys used to attract.

“Santa! Santa!” they shouted, tugging at my red pants. They were everywhere, clamoring for attention, begging for Santa to see them.

Mine was the classic case of a cartoon character who has an idea symbolized by a light bulb overhead turning on. In a few seconds, I was transformed from a puny human being running a previously-neglected errand into a superhero.

I had some big boots to fill.

I patted tykes on the head, gave with the ho-ho-hos, and actually became Santa. It was one of the most awesome experiences I have ever had, and the magnitude of the responsibility, of what it means to be Santa, has stayed with me since.

Christmases and insights come and go, but having walked a mile in Santa’s boots has left a big imprint in my life.

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