Sunday, December 12, 2021

ON BEING NAUGHTY AND NICE AS SANTA


 This picture shows a rare daytime appearance by an Editor filling in for the legend because I found it easier to hide in darkness to evade close scrutiny by tots who still might believe.  So it is that I was departing my home years ago watched only by my wife and one of my four grandsons, John Henry Francis. 
I love everything about Christmas so you won't find me saying humbug about any tradition from Silent Night to Saint Nicholas. And I've filled in for Santa from Cuba to Gwilliambury dressed in assorted costumes - even one in blue to mock Tories who said they were the source of all good things.
My love of the season is rooted in my first memories of life when I rushed after school to a tiny house in Chesley to listen to a brief broadcast from a magical toy land which resided on the fifth floor of something called Eaton's in the city where my two sisters and I lived efore we were orphaned as kids. Life in the town near Owen Sound wasn't great but that daily broadcast and the fact that my Dutch grandparents allowed a few festive trappings such as Christmas stockings eased what I remember as mainly a frozen ordeal.
It was my size that determined that I was seen as a likely Santa repacement when I survived into a newspaper job and a family. I had started small but ended up over six feet and flirting with 300 pounds. It helped when from time to time I also had a beard, which was useful when brats tugged away at the artificial one. Over the years I developed a reasonable ho, ho, ho and the forbearance not to be too upset when the child started leaking. 
I also learned it was best to operate briefly and at night to avoid older kids shouting out triumphantly that it is just Uncle John. There I was trudging in daylight in the snow outside my sister's farmhouse when one of the kids shouted out who I was because I hadn't bothered to change out of distinctive snow boots.
It went smoothly only about half the time no matter how careful I was. One terrible Christmas Eve I slipped out the side door so that my boys wouldn't see me in costume and found myself in the middle of an accident scene where a hit-and-run driver who was never caught had left a friend on his way to carols in a coma that finally ended in death.
When friends asked me to introduce their wisp of a daughter to the legend, I arranged to run through their dark backyard while ho ho hoing and ringing. Their older son wanted to see better so he switched on the floodlights. It startled me and I ran into a tree branch. I may have been quite ample and padded but it poked me in one eye, which turned ho ho ho's into yelps.
Unfortunately, it was only my first call that night . After sort of a recovery, I headed for another suburban street and was walking along it tolling a wreath of sleigh bells and shouting greetings when a cruiser stopped beside me and a young constable asked what I was doing.
I told him where to go in a lexicon of curses.The young girl in the home I was about to walk by shouted in dismay inside the picture window that the "cops were busting Santa Claus.'' Her father,  dean of social work at U of T but also the son of a beat cop in Edmonton, observed quietly that there really seemed to be no problem because it was obvious that a shouting angry Santa was taking care of things.
I wrote about it in the Sun. The first call came from the Toronto police chief who said he wasn't sure that he believed my column because surely he didn't have men that stupid on his force that they would stop a Santa on Christmas Eve walking down the middle of a street.
The Sun, being a newspaper that appreciated the finer things about urban life like a grand celebration of the season, used me routinely as Santa on public and private occasions, like handing out the Christmas bonus. Afterwards, a picture would dutifully appear of me and the smart alec cutline would always have some put down line that I really wasn't that cuddly.
Once the promotion gee whizzers decided to splash by buying sacks of candy canes and arranging for a carol sing at the CNE carillon. They found someone to play the carillon and hired ponies and a tiny stage coach for my grand entrance since there weren't any rental reindeer around.
I didn't fit with the canvas sacks of canes in the coach so I arrived on top. I jumped off with a theatrical flourish, which was a mistake,  because one of the big ornamental balls on the coach roof caught me in a very intimate part. It turned my hollering and ringing into something resembling screams. 
As I limped through hundreds of people trying to smile rather than grimace, ace Sun photographer Norm Betts snatched up a little boy and thrust him into my arms. "They're holding Page One so let's get a quick shot and I can get the hell out of here," he said. I shoved the boy back. He was my youngest son Mark, who wasn't sure what was going on but sensed he was being rejected by someone that was supposed to be nice. But I didn't want any office hassle about getting my son on Page One and a young newspaper really doesn't build circulation that way either.
So I grabbed another boy, Betts took the picture which ran on Page One, we convinced Mark that Santa really wasn't that bad, and the Downings handed out sugar canes for weeks to anyone who came near us.  (There was a strange echo years later when a man phoned asking for a favour because his son had appeared on Page One with Santa.)
I played Santa at press gallery parties at City Hall and Queen's Park and even in the underground garage of the Sun when it graced King St. And I tried to play it straight because if you slipped beyond the ordinary script kids got suspicious. I recall hoisting a child on my lap at the Sun and figuring out from the circle of parents that surely this was a Blizzard from the reaction of Christina and David Blizzard, two stalwarts from the early days. Except the child returned to them and said that surely Santa also worked at the Sun because "he knew my name."
The Santa gifts for the politicians were gags which were a little cruel so I wasn't supposed to write about them when we ran pictures later. I did get dragooned to wear that Tory blue Santa suit at the Legislature, where Conservatives reigned, rather than the Liberal red popularized in Coke ads. But I do recall giving the Lieutenant Governor a rubber dollar bill because under the Conservatives you really had to make your money stretch. And I gave hunting knives to the Premier and Opposition leader to protect themselves against their backbenchers.
Later over drinks when I had ditched the suit, a pipsqueak Tory MPP confided to a group of us that he was looking for Downing to kick his balls off because of the awful jokes about his party. "I'm from the north and we know how to handle jerks," he said. I said that I was Downing and I had been an editor in the Yukon and knew how to handle people who couldn't take a joke. He then saw that I was about twice his size and left.
I retired as a Santa imitation after I got a little tired of the routine and wanted to enjoy parties without having to change in some closet.
 I recall one party thrown by Sun founder Doug Creighton for a retiring police chief when on my trip home I was stopped at the usual fishing hole by a spot check. I interrupted the constable in his explanation of RIDE spot checks by saying I was the godfather of RIDE because I had passed the original motion at the Metro Citizens Safety Council to buy the signs for the experiment which had started life as Reduce Impaired Driving In Etobicoke before it became Reduce Impaired Driving Everywhere.
The constable listened impatiently and said that I had passed the breathalyzer so I could stop boring him with my claim that I had started RIDE. The next day, a police commission member phoned to say that the breathalyzer must have been defective.
In the early days of  RIDE, two other couples rented a limousine with Mary and me so that we didn't have to worry about driving home from a Herbie fundraiser. On the way, we were pulled over at a spot check at the edge of Etobicoke and a rather obnoxious constable started yammering about RIDE and breathalyzers. I argued, pointing out that we were passengers in a limousine so we didn't have to worry about breathalizers. When Riki Turofsky, the opera singer, joined in rather theatrically, the cop snapped out lines about it being up to him to determine who blew into what. There were deliberate double entendre elements of "blow jobs" in what he said. So I wrote about it.
This embarrassed the police chief so much that he quietly ordered an investigation. I got a call days later from a senior officer ordered by the chief to report to me that they could find no constable who would admit to being anywhere near Etobicoke that night. I said to drop it and forget about punishment because I was sure that the guilty constable was so worried he would never get mouthy again.
A rare blotch on my annual grand adventures. I look back with smiles about playing Santa and all those Christmas parties and concerts and singing carols in a Baptist choir. Everything used to turn out fine when dusted with the nostalgia of the season. 
 I remember thinking I had to indoctrinate the boat people in these joys after I was the official sponsor on behalf of federal immigration and Sun readers for the 43 Vietnamese we brought here in 1979. But their school and a church beat me to it. Before I even got talking about the season they had been given a Christmas tree for the humble living room I rented for them.
None of the refugees were Christian and they didn't known English and they depended on me for food and aid but it didn't really matter because the city was nicer than war and even the commercials talked about peace on earth good will to all. 
Then the city inspector said I had stuffed too many people into one house. So I phoned the mayor and yelled at him but nothing happened. Publisher Doug Creighton came to my rescue and said there was enough money from readers for me to rent other houses. Largest gift I ever gave as Santa and I wasn't even wearing the suit.


 

 
 

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