It began innocently enough with a request from an old friend whose son was three years old at the time. “Kell – would you mind playing Santa Claus for my son, Andrew, when we visit my parents’ house in Wellesley next week?”
Never one to say no, especially to a childhood friend, I readily agreed, but I did say to him, “My wife and I are attending a Christmas Eve dinner at the Wellesley Inn that night. I can’t be late for it!”
“No problem, Kell – we’ll give you the bag of toys outside my parents’ house, you do your thing, and then you can go to the Inn.”
After reassuring my wife, Wendy, that my slight detour to the Lakis house would not dissuade the impending celebration at our town’s most venerable hotel, she reminded me that her blessed grandmother and parents would be waiting for me as well. “If you’re late, I’ll send Rudolph and Dasher out to Great Plain Avenue. It could turn ugly if you’re still in that house!” bellowed Wendy as I packed my Santa outfit for the trek across town.
Years before, as a part-time underling at Olken’s, a prominent sporting goods and clothing store in my hometown of Wellesley, Massachusetts, I had brazenly volunteered to serve as Santa Claus during the Christmas season when no other worker had stepped forward. Even though I was one of the youngest employees, I had done my share of acting, emceeing, and radio commentary over the years. Plus, I was a fledgling co-teacher at a local elementary school. So, okay, I’d do it.
When, Mr. Henry Olken, the store’s owner personally gave me the bright red Santa outfit I was to wear and pointed to the men’s room to change, I began to get a bit queasy. “You’ll be great, Shaun!” Mr. Olken exclaimed as he patted me on the back.
A few minutes later, however, when I stepped out as a spry, vibrant Santa, “Mr. O” slipped a ten-dollar bill into my back pocket. Ah, what impecunious teachers who have to work part-time at clothing stores do for money!
Five Christmases later, I was still at it and had become a seasoned Santa for the children of Wellesley. Thus, my friend, Doug Lakis, had ample confidence in my ability to bring the ultimate joy to his precious, three-year-old son.
After receiving my final instructions from Wendy, who was heading to the Wellesley Inn to join her family, I finally saw the brightly-lit Lakis dwelling, which framed their street like an incandescent trinket in the frigid December evening. As I stopped in front of their Great Plain Avenue address, I quickly checked to make sure I had included my change of clothes in the back seat of our car – a Navy jacket; white dress shirt; holiday tie, and gray flannel pants. They were all there waiting for me as I sprinted to the front door with a bagful of toys that “Lake” had just handed off to me before he sprinted back to the kitchen entrance. I had smartly left my car running in the cold. After all, I needed to make an intrepid escape to the center of town as swiftly as possible. I then boldly rang the front doorbell.
Within minutes, I had play-acted Santa so seamlessly that even Doug’s father, Jim, whispered to me, “Jesus, Kell, you’re really good at this. Holy Christ!” After a concluding series of photos with little Andrew, I sprinted outside to my awaiting car and the hasty trip to the Wellesley Inn.
A moment later, I knocked on the Lakis kitchen door in horror. When my buddy saw who it was, he said, “Coming back for an encore, Kell?”
“Oh, my God, Dougie – I locked myself out of my car – and its running!”
Lake started to laugh and then said, “What? Santa didn’t use Rudolph tonight?”
He instantly saw the distress in my eyes as I cried, “You gotta drive me to the Wellesley Inn, Lake…pronto! I have to get our other set of keys that my wife has in her purse, open up the car door, and go back to the Inn after that. Shit, man, I’m in deep brown yogurt!”
Within a minute, we were careening through the tree-lined streets of Wellesley towards the Wellesley Inn. When we arrived at 583 Washington Street, I literally flew out of the Lakis car and began running – in full Santa apparel – towards the majestic wooden steps of the revered Georgian Colonial mansion that served as Wellesley’s most beloved landmark. As I trudged up the steps, a family of four emerged from the hotel, saw me approaching quickly, and roared, “SANTA!”
Given my quandary at the time, I had little choice but to blow them off, but when I saw their youngest, a little boy of about four, with big saucer eyes, gaze at me as if I was the Magi, I knew I had to acquiesce. I skidded to a halt, established eye contact with the little angel, and bellowed, “HO! HO! HO!” I then put my hand on the boy’s bantam head. “What would you like for Christmas, my good lad?”
“Oh, Santa, more than anything, I want a two-wheel bike cause I’m big enough to ride on my own now!”
“Well, my boy,” I replied as I glanced at my watch – I was already ten minutes late, “I am sure that my elves are hard at work right now!” The lad smiled broadly as his parents looked at him affectionately.
As I continued up the stairs, the boy’s mother stopped me in my tracks and asked me ever-so-sweetly, “Oh, Santa! Do you mind if we take a family picture with you in front of the Inn?”
“Of course!” I replied as I heard my friend, Dougie, snickering from his car.
I then galloped into the main entranceway, turned left toward the main dining room, all the while imagining what heartfelt apology I would say to both Wendy and her expectant family. Within seconds, I approached the enormous chamber that served as the central eating place at the Inn. I hastily observed that it was festooned to the top of its wooden beams with a hodgepodge of Christmas decorations. Frantically, I began to appraise which table my wife, her parents, and her grandmother were seated at for the much-anticipated holiday dinner.
As if on cue, all two-hundred-plus persons from every corner of the dining area simultaneously noticed a man in a familiar cardinal-red outfit and flowing white beard at the door. At that instant, virtually every person in the establishment belched in raucous harmony, “SANTA!!!!!!!” This was followed by the popping of several flashbulbs from assorted tables throughout the dining room.
Santa was in the house!
While every person’s eyes simply glowed when they saw me, there was one pair of eyes in the dining room at that that stood in stark contrast to the rest. My wife’s death-star look conveyed one overwhelming reality to me: I was now living on borrowed time.
To make matters worse, Wendy’s mother, who had always gotten a kick out of me, thought it was all hilarious, which made my spouse even more infuriated.
As fate would have it, Wendy and her family were situated at a reserved table at the far end of the room. To get there, I would have to maneuver through a minefield of festive people – from 3 to 93 – who all wanted to thank me; shake my hand; have a picture taken with me, and ask their youngest what he or she wanted for Christmas.
Ultimately, it took me more than 15 minutes to extricate myself from such an all-encompassing horror show until I finally reached Wendy’s family’s table. When I told her what had happened, she murmured, “You idiot.” She took me by the hand and pointed to the door.
My wife, whose shyness has always been based on never resorting to any semblance of public attention, now had a wellspring of it as she marched me out of the dining room like some recalcitrant five-year-old. She then steered me like a lawnmower toward the exit, even as strangers yelled out, “Merry Christmas, Santa!”
As we clumped on the Inn’s creaky floor heading for the lobby, I was convinced that she yearned to propel me into the crisp Wellesley air like Sputnik.
When we finally arrived at the hotel’s front porch, Wendy opened up her purse, found her set of keys, and tossed them at me as if they were radioactive. Normally, I would have effortlessly caught them, but I was blinded by the glare of the Inn’s spotlight above the front door, which was then fixed onto a miniature Santa near the entrance. Consequently, the keys hit my stomach, where a concealed pillow hidden beneath my red Santa jacket caused the keys to bounce off of it like an East German gymnast. In retrospect, the keys’ gradual arc into the Wellesley night was actually a thing of beauty, a cow-goes-over-the-moon happenstance, which caused the keys to land smack into a massive bush adjacent to the right of the Inn’s front door.
Wendy, now apoplectic, screeched: “Find the keys! Go back and get your car, and then come back – and then maybe you can join us!”
When I immediately dropped to my hands and knees in the snow and commenced to crawl towards the awaiting underbrush, my spouse shook her head and hissed, “This is pathetic!”
Less than thirty seconds later, with my head amongst the bushes – and my rosy Santa’s bottom sticking out like an orb to any passerby on Washington Street – my French-English-Canadian wife cried out scathingly, “Joyeux Noël!” Wendy then trudged back inside and slammed the gargantuan entranceway of the Wellesley Inn behind her.
“That was outstanding, Kell!” cried Lake who had witnessed it all from his car where he had patiently waited for me to emerge from the Inn with my keys.
In the end, reduced visibility, feathery white snow, and prickly bushes all caused me to spend another two minutes on my hands and knees before I successfully retrieved the keys, which, ironically, were wrapped around a protruding branch of a holly bush.
Just when I was about to extract myself from the Inn’s shrubbery, I heard an elderly woman and her husband abruptly terminate what had been an animated conversation. After a protracted silence, she asked her hubby, “Ralph, is that a Santa Claus on his hands and knees in those bushes?”
“Yes, Dear. It appears to be.”
She sighed and then proclaimed noisily, “You would think that that man would have some semblance of self-control, especially wearing that particular costume. I wonder how drunk he is.”
I could feel her shadow hovering over me as she glanced to see if I was still conscious.
“The curse of the Irish,” she mumbled as she and her spouse descended into the Inn for dinner.
More than 20 minutes later, I joined Wendy and her family for dessert.