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Pots & pans: Philly fans didn’t really boo Santa Claus

The real Santa lives in every house and every heart that’s open to believing in life’s goodness

Sometime in October, a sportscaster, let’s call him Paul Palaver, said that Philly sports fans were so tough that they’d once booed Santa Claus. At this, I blanched. Like fruitcakes, I can only stomach references to that 1968 event during the Christmas season. I viewed someone telling the Santa story so early as a new example of holiday creep. Besides, as everyone from Philadelphia knows, the person who was booed was not the real Santa Claus.

On Dec. 15, 1968, a fake Santa got slogged in traffic and didn’t show up to provide halftime entertainment during the Philadelphia Eagles-Minnesota Vikings game. Frank Olivo, dressed in a Santa suit, was pulled from the Franklin Field stands to take the other fake Santa’s place. As Tammi Terrell, a Philly girl, sang with Marvin Gaye in 1968, Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” Olivo’s appearance was met with boos and snowballs. But, through the years, he wore his 15 minutes of sports fame proudly, as if it were a garland. The former barber, car salesman and Atlantic City craps dealer died in 2015. He was 66.

As people who grew up in my hometown know, the only thing fake in Philly is the cheese goop some people slather on their cheesesteaks. People like Ed Rendell, former Philadelphia mayor and Pennsylvania governor, have said that the fans were just blowing off steam at the “Iggles’ ” losing ways. But people from Philly, like people most places, don’t like to be cheated. Already subjected to a 2-12 season, being insulted by an obvious fake Santa was too much and too little.

Still, I believe that had the real Santa appeared at Franklin Field, fans would have treated him with affection and respect, just as millions of children have all over the world. Still, I can imagine some might have tried to hustle him: “You want us to watch the sleigh and the toys?” Or, “How you doing for suits? I can get you some great red suits, nice wool gabardine, real rabbit fur. The tailor’s a cousin, just off the boat, still learning English, makes everything by hand.” Or: “You happy, Santa baby, I’ve seen pictures of Mrs. Claus.”

Further, I imagine that the real Santa Claus would have been questioned about his race in Philly. A little girl, let’s call her Virginia Washington-Cruz, might have said, “Last year, I saw a woman on TV say you were white.”

After a contemplative and patient drag on his pipe, I can imagine the real Santa replying: “Do I look white to you, baby?” His countenance changing with the needs and wants of each person who sees him, especially the children.

The real Santa Claus is a melding of fact and legend, whimsy and commerce: Saint Nicholas of Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) to the Santa Claus of 1930s Coca-Cola ads; Clement Moore’s 1822 poem, A Visit From St. Nicholas to the Rotary Connection’s 1968 song Peace At Least:

Look out of your winda’ and you’ll see him ridin’ (mistletoe)

Riding so high (mistletoe)

Spreading joy.

As the Rotary Connection once sang, we need Santa every year. What we don’t need is a story about a fake Santa getting booed in Philly, an enduring and pernicious example of the bad behavior of the few defining the many.

Let me be clear, this is not a defense of Philly’s sports hooligans booing Olivo or anybody else. For decades, men, often fueled by too much to drink and a sense of entitlement, have behaved as if paying for their tickets gave them the license to act like zoo monkeys on LSD. In 1947, Philly baseball fans jeered Jackie Robinson as he broke the sport’s color line. In 1999, Eagles fans mocked Dallas Cowboy receiver Michael Irvin as he lay crumpled on the Veterans Stadium field, his pro career shattered. During the last baseball season, someone threw a bottle at Ryan Howard, the star first baseman of the Phillies’ pennant victories in 2008 and 2009. The Phillies won their second World Series in 2008.

Today, the Eagles have a lockup in their football stadium to hold unruly fans. At least with hooliganism, Philly, often mocked for being too parochial, stands as part of a worldwide problem. It’s that behavior that needs to end. But telling an old story about Philly fans booing a fake Santa Claus won’t help.

Nobody from Philly or anywhere else would boo the real Santa Claus. We know how important his generous late-night rides are for the true believers, especially the children.

As an editorial from the now-defunct New York Sun told Virginia O’ Hanlon in 1897, Santa Claus “lives and he lives forever.” He lives in every household and every heart that’s open to his special deliveries.

A graduate of Hampton University, Jeff Rivers worked for Ebony, HBO and three daily newspapers, winning multiple awards for his columns. Jeff and his wife live in New Jersey and have two children, a son Marc and a daughter Lauren.