When a story sounds too good to be true, it usually is - especially around this time of year.
But when Christmas carols fill the air and Jack Frost is nipping at your nose, even the hardest-bitten reporters can let their guards down for a real whopper.
This one hit the New York Post newsroom via a "tipster" one Christmas Eve in the early eighties:
Seems a broken-hearted department store Santa Claus was going through the motions at his job, mustering up false cheer as he listened to one child after another tell him what they wanted for Christmas.
Suddenly, a grown woman joined the line of kids. Santa's heart hammered as the woman approached and sat on his lap. Adults did this once in a while, just for laughs. This woman was no different, all giggly and playful.
Until the tearful Santa spoke a magical sentence: "Hello, sweetheart. How I've missed you."
It was Santa's long-lost wife - the one who'd walked out on him years earlier, the one he could never forget!
Recognizing her ex behind the beard, the woman bolted from Santa's lap and out of the department store. Santa couldn't catch her, what with his fat man suit weighing him down.
And now, Santa himself had just one wish for Christmas - bring my beloved back to me!
Well, the story went to me, and job number one was to keep the other papers from finding out about Sad Santa - we wanted this Christmas miracle exclusively!
"Bring him to the newsroom," the city editor growled. "And make sure he's got the beard and the red suit!"
We got him to the newsroom down on South Street. Keep in mind a Christmas Eve party was in full swing, and some of us were drinking from Parthenon-emblazoned paper coffee cups that didn't contain anything resembling coffee.
I interviewed Santa, and he was a dream. He was still crazy in love with his estranged wife. They'd hit a rough patch - hey, it happens to every marriage, doesn't it? - but he was a new man, eager for another chance.
If Santa Claus couldn't turn over a new leaf, who could?'
Page one story, with a big photo of Sad Santa on Christmas day: A CHRISTMAS STORY THAT WILL MELT YOUR HEART!
The day after Christmas Santa's wife was waiting for me in the newsroom. What a follow-up! Santa and long-lost Mrs. Claus reunited!
Except she didn't look happy. She clutched the front-page story in a trembling hand.
"I'm his wife," she announced.
"Well, he wants you back," I said.
"I already live with him," she snapped. "He must be talking about another wife."
"Another wife?" I gulped. "Are they divorced?"
"How should I know?! I'm going to sue the paper!"
Visions of extremely un-Christmasy words were dancing like sugarplums in my head,
words such as "bigamy," "lawsuit", "public humiliation" and (worst of all) "fired."
Just like that, the screenplay for "Miracle on 34th Street" had morphed into "Witness For The Prosecution."
And if I didn't straighten out this mess, I was not going to have a Wonderful Life.
I got the woman a cup of coffee and told her to make herself comfortable. Then I phoned Santa - who might have been the "tipster," as well - and let him have it with both barrels.
"Hey, Santa. We've got your wife here - not the one who sat on your lap. The other one!"
He was smooth and calm. He reminded me that he'd never said he WASN'T married to somebody else at the present time. He accused me of being liquored up, and getting my facts wrong.
"Facts? What facts?!" I shouted.
Santa hung up. I still had his ticking time bomb of a wife waiting for me.
"Charm her," the city editor advised me.
Back then I had charm to burn. I said I was sorry for the mess her husband had made, but assured her that litigation would only bring embarrassment to everyone involved. The best thing to do was to let it go, and (please God!) not mention it to any of the other newspapers.
It worked. She left the newsroom, shaking her head. I never heard from her or Santa again, but to this day every sidewalk Santa I come across gets a slit-eyed look of suspicion from me.
And what about the long-lost love who sat on Santa's lap? Was she for real, and if so, did she ever read the story I wrote, or try to get in touch with Santa?
I guess we'll never know. Rumor had it she'd been kidnapped by The Grinch, but that was a tip I could never verify.
Charlie Carillo is a producer for the TV show "Inside Edition." Click here to buy his novel "The Man Who Killed Santa Claus: A Love Story" on Amazon Kindle for 99 cents.
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