“Mommy, Santa’s asleep on the kitchen floor”
By Shaun Costello
Christmas in the Forest Hills Gardens was my favorite time of year. A great deal of attention was paid by Gardens residents to make sure that the little hamlet was as adorable as was intended by the designers who created it. The
Gardens Corporation spent a hefty portion of its annual budget making sure that every lamp post, every pine and spruce, even the stop signs were appropriately adorned and decorated to say “Merry Christmas” to each and every passer by. There was a full scale Nativity Scene with a stable, and life size statues of the participants, as well as enormous stuffed sheep and goats. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, the older kids would rearrange the juxtaposition of the scene’s characters to suggest that the Magi were doing something unnatural
with the sheep, but the following morning the Gardens Corporation’s handyman would put things right, and Yuletide spirit would resume, uninterrupted.
The houses were elaborately decorated with lights, and wreaths, and holly, with candles in the windows, and Santa’s sleds on the rooftops. There was a team of judges who traveled about the community, making notes on the quality of decorations, and a prize was awarded to the best dressed home on Christmas night right in the middle of Station Square, the epicenter of the community. There was a rumor, that the judges could be bribed with martinis, so the validity of the prize was in always in question.
On Christmas Eve the grown ups had lots of parties, and the Gardens Corporation kept track of where they were so that a list of addresses could be given to the Gardens Carolers, who would sing their versions of “Silent Night”, and “We Three Kings of Orient Are”, at each and every gathering, after which they would be rewarded with drams of eggnog and cognac and thus fortified, move on to the next venue. The streets in the little hamlet were crowded with revelers, drinks in hand, arm in arm, singing and laughing, as they staggered from party to party, hell bent on the proper celebration of the birth of the Christ child. Enormous consumption of alcohol seemed to be an integral element in the festivities.
Each Christmas Eve the Gardens Corporation “conscripted” a group of Santa’s from among the Gardens’ teenage population. They were dressed in Santa outfits, given a list of addresses complete with the names of the children in residence, and a bag of gifts, one for each child on the list. This event was enormously popular with the children of the community, who got a visit from their very own Santa, who handed them a gift with their very own name on it. On this particular Christmas, my friend Bill Beggs’ older brother Jack was to take his first tour as Santa, and Bill’s friends, me included, went over to the Beggs’
house to give Jack pointers on his Santa performance, and tease him as much as he would allow. Jack Beggs was an unassuming, engaging, friendly kid and Bill’s friends all liked him. He was the only teenager in the community who treated us like humans.
There was a tradition at the Gardens Corporation office on every Christmas Eve, that involved giving each Santa a shot of brandy to ward off the cold, along with a Merry Christmas toast before the eager team of teenage Santa’s began their rounds of gift giving. Jack was fourteen, and had never had a shot of brandy before, but the fiery liquid was a welcome fortification against the cold, not to mention his nervousness at the possibility of giving the wrong presents to children whose names he might forget. Properly imbibed, Jack began his rounds.
Mr. and Mrs. Beggs were out doing the party circuit, so Bill answered the phone when it rang about two hours later. “Look Beggs, this is Al Relyea down at the Gardens office. I just got an angry phone call from Doctor Fallon. I guess you know that your son Jack is a Santa this year. Anyway, he evidently got his hands on a bottle of hooch, and got himself plastered. He passed out on Fallon’s kitchen floor and threw up all over the place. The Doc’s kids are hysterical, and he’s threatening to sue the Gardens Corporation for something called “loss of innocence”, unless we get young Jack out of his house right away. Say, how old is Jack now, fourteen? I guess he got an early start. Hair of the dog, eh John? Look Beggs, you’ve got to help me here. Go over and get your son out of there”. A stunned Bill Beggs, lowering his voice as far as it would go said, “Right away’, and hung up.
Not knowing what to do, and realizing that if his parents found out, Jack would be on house arrest until his 65th birthday, Bill called me. Jack was simply too big for the two of us to handle, so we enlisted the help of the Bullock twins, and Chipps Page, who were delighted to be able to witness the sight of Jack in his Santa suit, unconscious on the Fallon’s kitchen floor, and they met us outside the Doctor’s house.
When we knocked on the Front door we were confronted with an angry Doctor Fallon, who challenged Bill with, ‘Where’s your father, mister?” We explained to the Doctor that Mr. and Mrs. Beggs were out, so the five of us would get Jack out of his house and take him home. Santa was still out cold on the kitchen floor, his beard all askew, and Mrs. Fallon was busy cleaning up the remains of the dinner that Mrs. Claus must had made for him before he began his trip from the North Pole, and that he had thrown up all over the Fallon’s floor. Jack was dead weight and it took all the strength we could muster to get him out of there and back home.
Here’s what had happened. It seems that there’s one more tradition in the local Christmas lore that Jack was unaware of. Each time Santa makes a visit he is rewarded by the grateful family on which he has bestowed his gifts, usually in the form of what local grown ups referred to as a “blast”. This consisted of a strong eggnog, or a shot of Cognac. The Fallon’s were Jack’s tenth and last family, which meant that fourteen year old Jack Beggs, whose first taste of alcohol was the Christmas Toast earlier that evening at the Gardens office, had consumed five eggnogs and four Cognacs before he knocked, with great difficulty, on the Doctor’s door. He had somehow lost his
hat, and was wearing his beard sideways as he staggered into the Fallon’s living room. Poor Jack was sick for a few days, and his parents actually did find out about his mischief, but drunkenness in the Forest Hills Gardens was a forgivable sin, not only condoned, but encouraged, even in children. Young Jack became a folk hero in the eyes of the local grown ups, who were sometimes referred to by their children as, the “unquenchables”. His father was greeted by friends with, “Chip off the old block, huh John?” His heroic performance had added stature to Jack’s reputation in the community, and I wondered how long it would be before his dad greeted him one evening with, “Hey son, how about a blast?”
© 2010 Shaun Costello