BOSTON. In a city with a goodly number of eccentric street people, Jerry O’Reagan still manages to stand out. “I’ve got a message nobody else has,” the grizzled 66-year-old says as he rings a hand bell to solicit contributions. “That’s for damn sure,” says an unidentified businessman who drops loose change into O’Reagan’s metal bucket. “He may be crazy, but he does have a point.”
The un-churched minister’s message is a familiar one–put Christ back into Christmas–and O’Reagan works hard to put it across in a city that, despite its religious roots, is increasingly secular. “I know I’ll never persuade most of the adults to change their ways,” he says with a rueful pursing of his lips. “That’s why I go after the kids.”
O’Reagan’s “schtick” as old school stand-up comics would say, is to revise the lyrics to popular non-religious Christmas carols in more sacred terms, and he draws a crowd of toddlers with their mother as he launches into a tune that would normally inspire visions of expensive toys to dance in their heads:
Oh, you better watch out,
you better not cry,
you better not pout,
I’m telling you why–
Jesus Christ is coming to town.
The eldest of the three children gives his mother a look of puzzlement as O’Reagan turns to the “bridge” of the familiar song:
He sees you when you’re sleeping,
He knows when you’re awake,
He knows when you’ve been bad or good
So be good or you’ll burn in hell forever.
“Please go away Jerry–you’re killing our business.”
Realizing that O’Reagan’s appeal is, to put it mildly, slightly unorthodox, the mother shepherds her kids into Macy’s, where an escalator will take them to meet a Santa who conveys a more conventional message for the season that conforms to his employer’s commercial goals.
“You want a bike? How about 500 years off your time in Purgatory instead?”
“I’m not going to apologize for who I am,” O’Reagan says to this reporter when he stops to take a smoke break, and indeed his personal history does much to explain how he got to be who he is today. A former altar boy at St. Columbkille’s in the Brighton neighborhood of Boston, he traveled west in 1967 to participate in the “Summer of Love” in San Francisco. There, he “dropped acid” and his religious training mixed with psychedelic visions to form an apocalyptic world view that mixes early Christian history and Christmas nostalgia, without losing the distinctive character of either.
“Are you excited about Christmas?” he asks a little girl whose dad has given her a dollar to hand to O’Reagan.
“Yes,” she says shyly.
“Make sure mom and dad don’t light a fire on Christmas Eve or Jesus will get burned coming down the chimney.”
“Okay,” she says warily before running back to her father. “He’s silly,” she says as he takes her in his arms and scurries away at a faster-than-normal pace.
It’s time for the show to begin again, and O’Reagan clears his throat for his next set of songs, kicking it off with a re-purposing of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”:
I saw Mommy cut up her credit cards,
With pinking shears it was pretty simple.
A snip through each, it wasn’t hard–
like Jesus throwing money changers out of the Temple!