San Francisco History

With Santa Claus as a Pal

by Walter J. Thompson

One December night about forty years ago the Telegraph Hill boy found himself wrestling with a deep problem as he lay in bed looking out through the window of his attic room upon the white walls of the big castle that was set upon the brow of the hill as it basked in the ghostly rays of a full moon that rode high in the sky. It had been a strenuous day, passed in strolling along Stockton street, Montgomery and half way up Second toward Rincon Hill, where the aristocrats lived, admiring the vast array of Christmas things displayed in the shop windows and on street corners and along the curbs. For the world’s greatest holiday was but three days off and there was a preponderance of bustle and hustle in the land calling for the active participation of young and old.

Stockton street was the Broadway of the North Beach district in those days. It had its fine brick homes and fashionable boardinghouses up near Washington street and going toward the beach were many marts of trade that at holiday time bristled with all that went to make up Christmas cheer. The atmosphere of the street was as appealing to those who mingled with its assorted delights as the spicy breezes that were wafted over Ceylon’s isle. Washington was the connecting link with Montgomery street, also resplendent with marvels, as was Second, just beyond.

During those close-to-Christmas days, it was the custom for neighborhood cronies to form parties of exploration to go into the realms of wonderful toys and to investigate things generally for the purpose of basing calculations as to what and which would come their way on Christmas morn. Enthusiasm rode a high horse upon those occasions. The last word in the designs of “bellygut” wagons were inspected at Friedman’s bazar and caused a discussion as to the superiority of the new screw-on nut device for the axles over the old and reliable linchpin with no definite results, because at that moment Tommy Bunch, whose folks lived in a cabin near the beach at the base of the hill and who wasn’t a hill fellow and mocked at bellygutting down the slope, butted in and invited all hands to go fishing off Meiggs’. When the proposition had been turned down as ridiculous he turned upon them and in that arrogant, bullying way of his berated them soundly.

“Aw, you fellers make me tired. You know this Santa Claus business is nothin’ but a fraud. There ain’t no Santa Claus and your folks is just playin’ a game on you. It’s only for babies and you’re it. Yeh, you crazies, you dummies.”

And no one dared take it up with him. Tommy went away glowering and left a sting in the joy of the day. And it all came back to the Telegraph Hill boy now at night, when he was tired and wanted to sleep. It swept all the sand out of his eyes, leaving them wide and staring with nothing to look at but the white castle in the moonlight.

Now this Santa Claus business was not a new matter by any means. It had been a haunting shadow for two or three Christmas seasons ever since Jimmy Wilson, who was always snooping around like a snake had confided to him that he was sure there was no Santa Claus, because he had seen his father putting things in his stocking. But this had been explained very plausibly by Aunt Maria, who was a firm believer in Santa Claus, and who told him that the good old man was often surprised with his delivery business that he frequently delivered his presents in bulk, leaving it to parents to distribute them as marked. And here he was in the throes of doubt again as to the identity, in fact the existence of Santa Claus, just after he decided that there certainly was such a personage who lived somewhere and had one consuming ambition, and that was to supply boys with the very things they wanted. He almost wished Tommy Bunch had been drowned that time the rowboat he was in tipped him into the water. No, he didn’t wish that exactly. But it would never do for him to fall away from his faith three days before Christmas. There might be a Santa Claus who lavished his choicest wares upon certain favorites. Might be?—there was, there was—don’t forget it.

The Telegraph Hill boy was in the plight of many a strong man who suddenly amid the whirl of life’s changes suddenly sees the temple of his fairest ideals suddenly embraced by a ruthless Samson and David and rocked until the walls begin to crumble and its pillars to rock, and he knows that he is doomed to perish along with Samson in the ruins unless some miracle intervenes. The white walls of the castle splashed with moonshine stirred memories which were appropriate to the occasion. He remembered that “Brick” Lewis had told him once that his father had said Santa Claus made his headquarters there on Christmas eve, stacking his stock in the big empty hall and drawing upon it for his various trips in different directions. It had to be admitted that none of the hill boys had ever seen any of this work, but of course, it was all done in that masterly secret way that Santa Claus had. Besides his own dad, when questioned, had remarked it was undoubtedly true, as no one ever knew what else the castle was built for. He determined to lay awake on Christmas eve—no, on second thought he wouldn’t do any spying. But certainly if there was a Santa Claus, it was just the place he would select—oh, shucks, would that it ever leave him alone? His Christmas hopes would be blasted yet by that bugbear of doubt that was pursuing him. Now the Telegraph Hill boys were not noted for their timidity or for sickly sentimentalism. They had a certain amount of contempt for the “sissified” effervescence of those dressed-up hillites over Rincon way and they considered themselves superior to the downtown boys if it was a showdown either at fighting or talking. The Telegraph Hill boys were hardy sons of battle, and if they were impulsive, they were also determined in tackling and settling away with anything they undertook. The Santa Claus business had to be settled.

His thoughts flew back to the very first time he had seen Santa Claus in person at his Sunday-school entertainment when the red-faced, roly-poly old fellow in scarlet cloth, trimmed with white fur, had hopped through a window, and after handing out all the gifts and stockings of candy on the big tree he could lay his hands upon had hopped out again. Some of the big fellows said that it was old man Willis, the painter, all stuffed up; but that wasn’t so, because old man Willis was seen making merry at the ice cream table with a lot of old maids, as his sister Pauline called them.

Still pondering on the Sunday-school, he mused on the sacrifices he had made around Christmas time to win the favor of Santa Claus, who was supposed to keep a list of the fellows who tried to do the right thing. He was one who had tried to do right. Perhaps it wasn’t just proper when on Sundays in other months of the year, after singing about the little drops of water and the grains of sand making the mighty ocean, etc., instead of slipping his dime into the class collection box to aid the black heathen in far-off Africa to have shoes and stockings and handkerchiefs he had bought “Chinee” clams and jujube paste. Then, he remembered, as Christmas approached, how he was appalled at the enormity of his offense and his heart went right out in sympathy for the black heathen, and as he dropped his money in the box he had happy visions of the heathen boys tripping gaily along in new clothes with stiff white collars, knee breeches and blue stockings, for all the world like those Rincon Hill sissies on their way to Sunday-school carrying their library books under their arms. And hadn’t his dimes aided in this great civilizing work? If there wasn’t a Santa Claus to note these noble actions, these triumphs over temptation why all the sacrifices were for naught. But they had been noted, as shown by the bountiful array of gifts he had received. And fathers and mothers did not buy “trumpery toys” and invest in “unwholesome” candy in such profusion for their children. Just ask them any time during the year and find out. No one but a jolly old chap such as Santa Claus was represented to be ever deliberately and with annual consistency and regulatory spent money so lavishly on the very things a fellow needed—things that the folks never noticed, except to call them a nuisance.

There was no denying that there was a lot of flub-dub story-book stuff about Santa Claus which had to be considered for what it was worth. He was not responsible for it, however, and it shouldn’t be allowed to affect his character. As to his driving about in a sleigh with eighteen or twenty reindeer, bumping over roofs and stopping to drop down chimneys, which being of brick one could see would not expand to admit his fat body and his pack, much could be said. Maybe he did go around that way, as shown in the pages of Our Young Folks and Frank Leslie’s Boys and Girls’ Weekly in those countries where they had snow fields and mammoth fireplaces with chimneys six feet wide, and they called Santa Claus Kris Kringle. It was all right there, but it wasn’t reasonable here in San Francisco when one sized up the chimneys and knew there was no snow. It was a puzzling affair. Perhaps Tommy Bunch was—but, no, he wasn’t right. What difference did it make how Santa Claus carried on his work so long as every fellow got his presents.

No good ever did come of meddling with good things. There was that fiasco of last Christmas when some of the fellows followed the advice of a smart Aleck and made secret marks on the wagons and other toys in Friedman’s bazar and at Moss’ place on Washington street just to prove that the old folks bought them there. Sure, some of the fellows got the marked goods, but it didn’t prove anything, because as Uncle Jack had said, it showed that those stores were just places where Santa Claus kept his things to have them handy. If Friedman or Moss could have disposed of the things as they pleased—they surely would have sold them to some one else, he reasoned, and it looked that way certainly. The Telegraph Hill boy felt a bit ashamed of having been concerned in that piece of treachery toward Santa Claus. It wasn’t an honest move.

But the crowing glory of the whole Santa Claus business was the glow of genial feeling which came over a fellow and held him in a sort of fairy-like enchantment until the holidays were over. It made him overflow with good feeling toward every one to think there was a Santa Claus, just as it made him feel ugly and vicious to think there was no Santa Claus. The more he thought there was one the better he felt. He was inspired to all manner of good deeds. He didn’t want to be a wanderer and leave his home. He wanted to devote every spare moment to the family circle. The air was laden with an aroma that titillated his nostrils and quickened his pulse. It was the breath of Santa Claus he liked to think. There were so many stirring events occurring at frequent intervals. Whims and wishes of Big Sister Pauline, which at other times were considered frivolous, were attended to with scrupulous care. Sister Pauline seemed to be a regular enchantress or wizard or whatever you call ‘em, in prognosticating just what he might get and also as to the size and decorations of the Christmas tree, and he freely vowed with crossed fingers that he would never peep into a certain room, the door of which was kept locked all of a sudden.

It was well to keep on good terms with Pauline; she had some strong hitch on the inside of this puzzling Santa Claus affair. Pauline was good to him too. She never let on she knew when he, strong in the desire to obtain as roomy a receptacle as possible for Christmas eve storage purposes, purloined a pair of her stockings—one to hang up himself and one for Billy next door, whose little sister’s socks were not as large as his own. At the same time, though, Pauline needn’t think she was fooling him about Santa Claus bringing a tree. He knew there was a tree in the house already and that it was in that locked room, together with lots of — —-; but, there, the less said about that the better. It wasn’t his fault that he found a key that just fitted the lock. Can’t a fellow make a mistake and be sorry for it? He wasn’t doubting Santa Claus. He was willing to admit that it was going to be his busiest year and that things were there on storage. They were just what he wanted and he was thankful for them. He would not go into the room again, s’help him. Surely Santa Claus wouldn’t take the things away. Well, he was glad he had fought that matter out. He was determined to be true to Santa Claus. Now that they had secrets in common he would treat Santa Claus as a chum. Think of it! He and Santa Claus chums! Under these conditions it was up to him to stick by his chum. It was up to him, Santa Claus being busy, to resent the slurs of Tommy Bunch. On the morrow he and Billy next door and big Charley White would round up Tommy and if he didn’t apologize it would be strange if the three of them couldn’t disfigure his face for Christmas. That should surely be done. Then the big white castle melted into the pale moonshine and the Telegraph Hill boy slept the sound sleep of boyhood.

If he dreamed that night it was so long ago that the Telegraph Hill boy does not remember. But he feels very contented as he slips his fingers through gray locks to recall that ever since that night of reverie he has been true to Santa Claus as a chum.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle. 24 December 1916. 24.

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