Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Dad Santa

I wrote this essay way back in 2008, in the hopes I'd be able to sell it to some small newspaper, magazine or website. But I couldn't find the right niche. A Jewish man dressing up as Santa may blow the mind of the Catholics living in my old provincial neighborhood, but  no one in the real world finds that at all unusual. Lots of Jewish Americans celebrate Christmas, so big whoop.

But I had a nice chat with my Dad researching this piece and since no one wants to pay me to tell the story, maybe you'll indulge me while I tell it for free.

I grew up in Gerritsen Beach, the Brooklyn neighborhood where my Irish Catholic mother had been raised and where my Dad was the only Jew in a fifteen-block radius.

My parents raised my brother and me Catholic, but mixed in Jewish holidays. December was marked with the advent wreath, the Hanukkah menorah and a Christmas tree. Dad’s family began exchanging gifts on Christmas before he was born. During the Great Depression, his Aunt Molly landed an office job and a Christmas bonus and celebrated the extra cash by bringing home bags of presents. The next year, the rest of the family followed suit, creating a new tradition.

My father had even gotten answers to his letters to Santa, printed on Saint Nick’s personal letterhead, produced at Uncle Morris’s printing shop.

It was only natural that they’d throw an annual Christmas/Hannukah party, where my mother, the domestic shiksa goddess, would serve dozens of latkes alongside a baked ham.

It never struck me as unusual. At the age of 9, I thought everyone’s dad was Jewish. When I was 11, I decided it was only the portly dads with mustaches.

Since Dad looked like a cartoon fireman, it wasn’t too surprising when he joined the local volunteer fire department.

Every year, on Thanksgiving morning, the volunteer fire department held the Ragamuffin Parade. The parade wound its way through the streets of the neighborhood, led by the local marching band. The fire engine, ambulance and rescue truck came next, followed by a crowd of costumed children—the ragamuffins. EMTs and Firefighters dressed as Cookie Monster or Elmo shook children’s hands, handed out cookies and signed autographs.
The star of the show was always Santa, perched atop the fire engine and merrily waving to the onlookers.

One year, the usual Santa was unavailable, so the job passed to my father. I think they let him do it so they could rib him about how little padding he needed to fill out the costume. Besides, the gentile firefighters thought that the idea of a Jewish Santa was hilarious.
Dad thought it was a little incongruous, but it didn’t worry him. Some of the members of the choir at his synagogue weren’t Jewish. He only cared about playing the part well enough that the children would believe that he really was the big guy and not just some schlub in a costume.

That morning, Dad put on the red suit, beard and hat in the men’s restroom while someone guarded the door. Members often brought their children along to march in costume. Everyone knew the real Santa was in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, but it was important to keep up the illusion.

When Dad was ready, we all bustled into the hallway to create a diversion so that it would look like Saint Nick had arrived through the back door instead of the bathroom. The trick worked so well that until I did it myself, I hadn’t realized that the back door had been chained shut for over a decade and had never been opened for Santa.

Dad ho-ho-hoed with gusto as he climbed on top of the fire engine and got settled in the folding chair resting on top of the fire hoses. Once he was sitting, I realized what a dangerous proposition this was. I imagined my famously nearsighted and clumsy father toppling off his chair onto a helpless child below, and traumatizing dozens of kids with the sight of Santa falling off the fire truck and being rushed away in the ambulance.
We gathered the costumed children and the trucks slowly set off. On top of the truck, waving at the crowd, he looked like the Pope.

Back at the firehouse, dozens more children were waiting to speak to Santa. Dad took his seat, clearly thrilled to be the center of attention and probably relieved that he’d climbed down from the fire engine with his dignity intact. The kids sat on his lap and told him what they wanted for Christmas. He soothed the ones who were afraid of him, and made sure their parents got a good photo. The little ones were easy to please and impress. Each one left with a candy cane and huge smile on their face.

When the last true believer was gone, Dad changed back into himself and we went to dinner with the family. He said that it had been like wearing a superhero costume. It had been a tremendous responsibility to stay in character all morning, and it was a relief to know that now he could belch without traumatizing a four year old.

The next year, the usual Santa reclaimed his position and Dad was disappointed. He’d never get to play the big guy again.

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