As Christmastime approaches, the face of the city tends to drop its often-cynical sneer and begins to sport a smile. The smiles on the faces of innocent children; the smiles on the faces of far-from-innocent retailers; the smiles on the faces of bartenders at the sight of the frowns on the faces of their customers — all are common sights the minute the Thanksgiving leftovers get wrapped in aluminum foil. Those visiting relatives or just making an unplanned tourist stop (as did thousands of air travelers during the Blizzard of ’89) might wish to take their smiles to one of the holiday celebrations unique to the area.
The Santa’s Village in Monument Plaza — sponsored by real estate maven Lucas Hrosbek and his family since 1931 — is always a draw, with its uncanny recreation of St. Nicholas’ North Pole workshop growing more elaborate each year. Originally a small lot containing the grand old man of Christmas on a candy-cane throne and a small set of workbenches where his elves constructed wooden dolls, as the Hrosbek fortune has grown, so has the Village. Now occupying nearly two city blocks, it now features a 36-stall reindeer pen, living quarters and a cafeteria for the Claus family and its diminutive employees, an actual functioning toy factory, and, in one of the less popular features, climate control technology that replicates weather conditions at the North Pole. The original ‘elves’ were brought back every year — many of them residents of Gulliver Lane in Samson Heights, which almost competed with the Monument Plaza attraction when its industrial utility disappeared — but the last of them passed on in 1991 (his funeral at St. Herbert of Derwentwater’s was attended by dozens of local luminaries who remembered visiting him as children); with a limited number of roles to be filled and the city’s little-person population increasing annually, competition can be quite fierce, and callow local teens from nearby Kissinger High often show up during the pre-Thanksgiving casting calls to watch what have become known as “elf brawls.”
The annual Christmas Game played by the Mighty Elms minor-league baseball franchise is truly unique. Enjoyed — insofar as one can enjoy a baseball game played in an outdoor stadium in late December — by fans since 1958, the Christmas Game features Woldward Park Woodsmen decked out in special red-and-green home uniforms and sporting jingle bells on their cleats, which, although they add a festive air to the proceedings, tend to cut down on steals. Since the baseball season is long over in December, there are no regular games, and hence opponents, to play; the Mighty Elms are pitted against teams made up of amateurs culled from the ranks of companies run by friends of owner Walter K. Wilton. Curiously, the semi-pro franchise has accumulated only a 25-22 record in these meetings despite the level of competition.
Finally, an interfaithfully good time can always had at Temple Shalom Beth-Israel’s annual and inexplicable “A Very Jewish Christmas” pageant, the city’s leading tourist draw for fans of ironic air-quotes.
– L. Pierce