TODAY IS the 40th anniversary of one of the most maligned, misunderstood and totally justified incidents in Philadelphia history:

The day Eagles fans booed Santa Claus.

If, like me, you find it hard to fathom that the event occurred in 1968 - and not, say, last year - it's because no one will let us forget it.

In October, during the World Series, an NPR commentator warned that the Tampa Bay Rays should watch their backs in Philly, "alleged City of Brotherly Love, where sports fans have been known to boo Santa."

When Sarah Palin was scheduled to drop the puck at a Flyers game that same month, a Washington Post article focused on how the move was risky, given how we, y'know, boo Santa.

And when sportscasters from Spokane to Miami want to illustrate what a crude, tough and nasty citizenry we are, they mention - can you see where this is going? - that we boo Santa.

Well, I have three things to say about that.

First, Eagles fans booed the man once - just once! - so Santa-bashing is not a routine occurrence, much as some gasbags want to believe otherwise.

Second, Santa deserved the catcalls that day.

Finally - truth? - I think a lot of us kind of love it that no one will let the story die.


 * * *

Let's be clear about what happened on Dec. 15, 1968.

The Eagles, who played their home games at Franklin Field, were losing the last one of the season, against Minnesota. Losing was something they did a lot in what would be their 2-12 finish, and fans were disgusted.

They detested the team's starting quarterback, Norm Snead.

They reviled the guy who brought him to Philly, coach Joe Kuharich, which is why they wore "Joe Must Go" buttons that day.

And they were ready to burn in effigy the team's owner, Jerry Wolman, for heading such a sorry band of idiots.

The weather was miserable at game time - cold, wet, snowy - and water dripped through every crevice in the decrepit toilet of a stadium.

"I remember that my feet were in a pool of some kind of fluid" - Water? Beer? Urine? - recalls Steve Kelley, a sports columnist at the Seattle Times; he was living in Wilmington back then and had a soggy seat at the game.

"We were freezing and angry. No one wanted to be there. At the same time, you didn't want to be anywhere else. It was just one of those games."

Eagles management had planned a Christmas show at halftime, but the guy who was to play Santa was stranded by the weather and couldn't get to Franklin Field.

Some people from the Eagles spied a young guy in the stands dressed like Santa Claus - Frank Olivo, 19 years old and skinny as a ribbon. They asked Olivo to run down to the field, through a phalanx of cheerleaders dressed as elves, and toss candy canes into the stands.

"He was doing everyone a favor," says Anthony Gargano, WIP (610-AM) midday host and co-author, with Glen Macnow, of The Great Philadelphia Fan Book, which contains a chapter about Olivo's misadventure that day. "But the crowd didn't know that."

And when they saw the Eagles' pathetic clown of a St. Nick on the field, well, it felt like the final insult: Not only were fans not worthy of a decent team, coach or stadium, they apparently weren't worthy of a decent Santa, either.

The boos started. The catcalls. The snowballs. Olivo took it in stride, shaking a finger at the fans and yelling how they wouldn't get presents that Christmas. But he was no match for a season's worth of rage in need of a deserving target.

"What people don't get is that we didn't boo Santa," says Kelley. "We booed a bad Santa. There's a difference. If it had been a bad Baby Jesus"- who, say, fell out of his manger - "we would've booed him, too."

***

That's why I love this story and am tickled that it won't die.

It tells the world: "In Philly, we won't be played for fools, and we'll call you on it if you try - even if you're as wholesome and beloved as Santa Claus."

It's not a bad thing to be known for, as a city. It certainly beats being known for dropping a bomb on a rowhouse.

Or for having a mayor whose office was bugged by the feds.

Besides, it lets us all take credit for being badasses - "Hey, I'm from Philly, where we boo freakin' Santa, man!" - without ever having to risk life, limb or teeth for the moniker, the way a true holder of the title would.

Excellent!

So, happy 40th anniversary to a most infamous event.

Long may we bask in its ridiculous glow. *

E-mail polaner@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2217. For recent columns: