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The Year of the Skinny Santa – My Introduction Into the Reindeer Club

Now you see him…now you don’t!

It’s that time of the year. Monday afternoon I’ll be joined by Steve Trevelise for our “De-Bone the Baccala Day festivities” and the annual reading of “The Year of the Skinny Santa – My Introduction into the Reindeer Club.”

And the tale goes a little something like this:

Christmas Eve, 1966. It was a biting cold, windy, and snowy Saturday – so snowy in fact that there were near blizzard conditions, and “thunder snow.” That was something I’d never seen before.

I was out delivering Italian bread that day with my godfather, Uncle Frankie, and looking forward to the eventual evening’s feast of 7 fishes. Which, since I was only 15 at the time, still hadn’t grown to appreciate.

Now that I’m 60, my tastes have changed a bit – but then, it never made any sense to me how anyone could make a salad out of something that gave off an odor so foul that it lingered in the house for days. And God knows, it did!

Part of the evening’s tradition involved the eventual visit from Santa Claus.

Now, you’re probably thinking, “If you’re 15 at the time, you can’t possibly still believe in Santa?” Well no, I didn’t. But I still had my kid sister and my cousins who did, and even if they didn’t, it was still something of an event when Santa came to the house.

A cowbell would clang, someone would rush in screaming, “I hear banging on the roof… I think he’s here… it’s Santa!” And then Santa himself, or someone in a Santa outfit, would scurry in, bellowing in his best “ho ho ho,” practically throwing gifts so as not to be identified by us wiseass kids.

After all, you didn’t want the kids to identify which of the older cousins was playing Santa… that would spoil the fun!

Besides, by that time, everyone had an inkling that it was either one of my uncle’s nephews Tommy or Joey. C’mon, who where they kidding? You couldn’t put anything over on kids from Avenue U!

But this year would be different. Tommy and Joey, and my uncle, collectively known at the “Reindeer Club,” were all snowed in! Uncle Frankie had the Santa outfit in a closet a block away. Tommy and Joey – well, they were probably snowed in somewhere in a bar on Bay 50th St., and even if they wanted to, it was snowing so hard, they would never have made it out anyway.

Now this presented a problem. Who was left to distribute the toys to the kids? The prospect of there being no Santa was just unthinkable. All eyes turned to me… all of 115 pounds of me!

The real cool thing was that now I’d get to be a part of that elite group known as the “Reindeer Club.”

Not that it had any special privileges or anything. It was sort of a “coming of age,” like a bar mitzvah, only for goyim! “Today, you are a man – just don’t tell your cousins who’s playing Santa!”

Anyway, once we trudged through the snow, and made it to my uncle’s apartment, I was outfitted with the Santa suit.

Four pillows later, and a lot of eye makeup so the kids wouldn’t get too close to me, we were off! I was dashing through the snow, without the one horse open sleigh or the ’63 Pontiac, which was stuck behind an embankment, exposed to the howling winds and snow, AND the wiseasses on the Avenue who made sure to bust my chops, wanting to know what Santa had in the bag for them.

I could have said something like “I got your presents right here,” but that wouldn’t have been too Santa-like. And I probably would have wound up head first in a snow bank. So, I let Uncle Frankie handle it.

First stop was Grandma’s apartment over Rome Bakery on the Avenue. The usual characters were there: Aunts, uncles, cousins, and my biggest pain in the ass cousin, Dominick, who I thought was gonna heave up a lung when he saw me – that’s how loud he laughed!

But the best reaction was the one Grandma had: Sheer terror, as she cowered in her chair gazing up at this figure that, to her, looked like the grim reaper, all the while saying in Italian….”chi e’ sandi claus?” (Who is Santa Claus?) “But it’s me, Grandma!” All to no avail, since A) she couldn’t hear, and B) she may have overdosed on a bit too much anisette!

Santa’s next stop was a bit more fun! Upstairs by my Aunt Grace and my uncle who we used to call O’ Zi. Aunt Grace had a voice like sheet metal being ripped. “Ohhh, is that Ray Ray,” she kept saying over and over between puffs on a Pall Mall. (She always was a buzzkill!)

Ahh, but the real acid test came next, downstairs at the Rossi house. And this was “showtime,” because there is where the kids were! One bad move and Santa would have been outed.

Uncle Frankie kept going over the line with me: “No, it’s ‘Ho, ho, ho.’ And whatever you do, don’t look at any of the kids, ‘cause they’ll know who you are.”

So in we go, Uncle Frankie ringing the cowbell, somebody else screaming, “…he’s here, he’s here,” and in I go.

My kid sister Chrissy, cousin Frankie Boy, who gets a bike, who gets a doll, bam, bam, bam… who’s laughing, and all the while I’m worrying that my “ho ho hos” don’t measure up.

If you’d put a stopwatch to it, I’d say we were in and out in 2 minutes flat! We had thieves in the neighborhood that would have stayed longer!

I’d like to tell you that Santa would have hung around for the traditional milk and cookies before being whisked away by the reindeer and the sleigh, but that wasn’t to be. Someone finally dug out the 63 Pontiac, and off Santa went, down the block and back to Uncle Frankie’s and Aunt Fran’s to shed the Santa suit… and back to my life as a civilian.

Waiting for me would be a piece of my mom’s homemade “migliaccio” (cheese cake) and struffelas. After all, it’s the very least Santa would have wanted!

Me, all of 9 years old!

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