Saturday, December 5, 2009


Not Always A Jolly Season

I used to be over six feet and 300 pounds. I had a white beard. And I loved everything about Christmas. Naturally I got pressed into service a lot as Santa Claus. (And if you're still a true believer, just consider me a helper to jolly old St. Nick.)
I've shrunk a bit in height and a lot in weight. I still love Christmas and despise its critics. I'm semi-retired as a writer and as a Santa, but still am ready to strut the stage on occasion.
Looking back, playing Santa wasn't always a joy. A lot of sweat in my eyes, ungrateful brats, and squeezing into costume in failed closets. But generally it was fun standing in for a legend for children (and a lot of adults. There was always a blonde wanting to sit on my knee.)
High on my list of memories is the time I got fired by a jerk and the painful occasion when I almost neutered myself. And then there were those stupid cops....
In the tense days around the Toronto Sun in 1998, when the fear was we would be taken over by the mechanical Toronto Star, the staff was thrilled when we were rescued by Quebecor, not realizing we were jumping into the cannibals' pot.
I had retired as the Editor but remained as a columnist. Only twice a week, which was a breeze compared to the five or six a week I had produced on Page 4 when the Sun first rose. Someone in the Sun hierarchy asked me if I would play Santa and deliver the Christmas bonuses to my former colleagues on the executive floor,
So there I was in my costume, ringing a bell, shouting ho ho hos, and handing out envelopes to department heads and a growing number of brass. I thought as I played postman/Santa that we had certainly grown in execs since the three Sun founders shared one office and secretary.
Yet some key officers were empty.And I ran into the reason at Paul Godfrey's door. Out came Godfrey, the Sun CEO, Trudy Eagan, the COO, several senior people and some male model showing all his teeth.
They looked curiously at me but when I wished them Merry Christmas, Godfrey and Eagan said why it's Downing. And they introduced me to the toothy model. This is the columnist who just retired as Editor. And so I shook hands with Pete Carl Peladeau, who was just starting his reign ruining Quebecor and being the Sun's high executioner. (The stock market rule is to avoid companies where the offspring have taken over from the founder. The Eatons are another example.)Eagan explained that Pete had just bought the Sun. And she said why didn't I come to the second-floor Atrium, where all the Sun's pronouncements were made, and introduce the purchase announcement as a gift by Santa to the great Sun staff.
Everyone muttered agreement. So we loaded ourselves into the elevator on the sixth floor. As we descended, Pete Carl started thinking aloud about how having Santa as part of the announcement sort of detracted from it. So let's not do it. I said it hadn't been my idea and that was fine with me. I punched the button and got off at the third floor. As the door closed, Pete Carl said good heavens, I've just fired Santa Claus. And there was nervous laughter.
So the acquisition was announced in the Atrium, which looks like a stage set. And I stood in a corner, wanting to hear details. Hugh Wesley, then our great chief photographer, was running around trying to organize a different front page picture. He descended on me. recognized my voice and said good, I want to have you and Pete Carl and Godfrey together and you can be pretending to pull the sales document out of your sack. No thanks, Hugh, I said. I've already been fired once today as Santa.
Sun photographers were often my downfall. One year our promotion people and Dave Garrick of the Canadian National Exhibition got the idea of a carol sing at the foot of the Carillon at the Ex, which is too little used. I was to be Santa, and since reindeer were in short supply, the idea was I was to arrive by a small stagecoach pulled by ponies. There was no way for me to fit inside, even without the bag of canes, so I climbed on top. We arrived in a flourish of bells and I went to climb off before several thousand people. The blooming coach was decorated with four big corner knobs on top. And I dragged an important part of my anatomy over one decoration.
I was screaming Merry Chrismas an octave higher than any Santa in history, when photographer Norm Betts yelled that he had to get back to the office immediately and I had to pose with a child for the front page of the Sunday paper.
I was looking around for a child when Betts, impatient as always, grabbed the nearest tot and thrust him into my arms. And I looked into the face of my youngest son, Mark. I would have loved to have my son on the front page, but that was not the best way to grow circulation. Give me another child, I said. Betts said this one is fine. Mark was startled to have Santa reject him in a pushing match with some strange man and was on the verge of tears. I grabbed another child, the picture was taken and Betts roared off, leaving behind one sad tot and a lot of puzzled carolers.
We had 50 pounds of candy canes left over. Needless to say, Mark had all the candy he wanted into the new year. But for years he was always thoughtful around Santa.
Santa should always play it straight. Don't get sarcastic when the little girl says all she wants for Christmas is world peace. Don't get flustered. If the kid is dripping, let the elves handle it. Don't get clever. I remember one Sun Christmas where it was obvious that the child on my lap came from the grinning parents, Chris Blizzard, the columnist, and Dave Blizzard, the computer guru. So you're a Blizzard, I boomed. I felt quite proud of myself. Then Chris told me that her child had left me and said Santa must work with you because he knew my name.
Neighbours asked me to play Santa one Christmas Eve. I don't like leaving the nog that evening. But Mary ordered me to be the merry old gent in the neighbourhood before I became merrier at home. I asked one family to let me walk through their backyard without their lights on to help me create more Santa mystery. Everything was fine until the older brother switched on the lights and, surprised, I ran into a tree, one branch of which hit me in the eye and knocked my glasses flying.
I retrieved my glasses and fled the scene, weeping from an eye. Mary collected me and drove me several blocks to another friend. Here I decided to walk up around the curve of the suburban street and stand on the lawn, ringing bells and wishing Merry Christmas. As I walked along the middle of the street, chiming and shouting ho ho ho at 6 p.m., a cruiser pulled up and the cops asked what I was doing.
At the bay window ahead, the 10-year-old sister to the waiting tot shouted out that the cops had just busted Santa. Her father, a prof but the son of an Edmonton cop, looked out just as I shouted at the two cops to fuck off. I think Santa has told them where to go, he told his daughter. (I wrote about it and the police chief phoned to say he didn't realize he employed two of the dumbest cops in the world.)
I remember the Christmas at a family farm when I walked outside in the dark to help my costume camouflage me but one son announced I was Santa because I hadn't bothered to change my boots. I remember the Mexican resort just before a Christmas when the MC of the evening show pressed me into service as Santa, because my hair and beard were longer in vacation mode. So there I was, sunburned, filled with rum, bouncing kids on my bathing suit who didn't seem to mind my lack of costume. And that's the crucial thing, of course, letting the kids paint in the illusion, trying not to be too cute, trying not to get in the way of their enjoyment of an enchanted bit of childhood.

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