Here's a tip for the holidays: Next time you see a 6-foot elf in the Italian Market holding a glass of red wine in one hand and a gold card in the other, and he's singing "Jingle Bells" . . .
Chris Henrick did, reluctantly at first, as she waited in line at Isgro Pastries yesterday. When she went to pay for her $85.85 worth of fruit cake, cookies and candies, she was stunned to learn they'd been taken care of. By the elf.
"C'mon, everybody, sing!" shouted the elf, who goes by Ray Verbrugghe and owns a title insurance company in Conshohocken. Soon half the crowd, packed three deep in the tiny bakery, was singing. So was the staff.
To the left of Ray the Elf stood old friend Tony Ciaccio Sr., the hairstylist, dressed as Santa and peeling twenties from a wad of bills.
"Unbelievable," said Henrick, walking to her car with a couple of giant bags. "It gives you a feeling of . . . just unbelievable."
That's just what Ray the Elf and Tony Santa have been doing for the last decade - spending the Sunday before Christmas singing, shopping, and treating strangers at the Italian Market.
"I'm blessed," explained Verbrugghe. "I grew up in the city, in a rowhouse. I worked three jobs until I was 30. Everyone measures success by money and power. That's not what it's all about. It's about friends and camaraderie."
Each year their merry little band has grown bigger. Yesterday they led 20 other men on a bus trip from East Norriton to the old neighborhood.
"A nontraditional tradition," Tony Ciaccio Jr. calls it. He's Santa's son, and the one drinking coffee. This year the pilgrimage nearly was canceled on account of Tony Jr. The 29-year-old, who studies elementary ed at West Chester University, went through 92 days of treatments for leukemia. Last month his bone-marrow biopsy was clean.
"He's my whole life right now," said his 61-year-old father.
The bus made one stop along the way. At a school in Roxborough, where a half-century ago Verbrugghe used to hang with friends, they picked up Buff Auerenheimer.
Auerenheimer wore white antlers on his crocodile hunter's hat and bore a case of liquid refreshments with names like "Banana Jubilee."
"This is really good - especially if you have a cold," he said, passing out blue and red Jell-O shots at 9:30 a.m. And you wonder why this annual excursion has a waiting list.
The ritual began 10 years ago when Verbrugghe, just divorced, headed to South Philly with his brother-in-law, Nick Salamone, to buy salt cod so they could prepare the Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve.
The second year, Tony Sr. joined them. Then came more friends, more family. It got to the point they needed a bus. Yesterday, the group ranged in age from 21 to 62. There was a bank president, a printer, a fitness guru, and a former Army Ranger training to be a Philly cop.
The bus let them out at Ninth and Washington, and they started walking in the rain to Sarcone's Bakery.
Santa started pulling toffees and lollypops from his sack, offering them to children along the way.
"Merry Christmas," he called to all. "Merry Christmas."
Some passersby got the verbal equivalent of coal and switches.
"I know what you're wishing for," Ray the Elf hollered to a young lady strolling arm in arm with a man. "You're hoping to drop him for Christmas."
"Tony, he needs a cut!" someone yelled to Santa when a man walked by sporting a boot-black mullet. "Man, he's walking it old-school."
At the giant Frank Rizzo mural, the men broke into song - first "Jingle Bells," then "Merry Christmas, Baby."
"Paisan?" Verbrugghe asked of a man he took to be a fellow son of Italy. The man nodded, and they embraced, or, rather Ray embraced, and the man went along with the large elf whose costume was starting to sag from the rain.
A pretty blond woman walked toward them, then decided at the last moment to try her luck on the sidewalk. This did not go over well.
"Make sure you don't get rain up your nose," yelled Tom Monteleone, 44, the printer, sniffing the air.
At Sarcone's, the gang joined the line that spilled out onto the sidewalk. Tony Santa called out, "Set the table. I'll be right out," and a few minutes later he emerged with a giant tomato pie. Then another.
"Who needs dinner rolls?" he asked some couples on the street, and started tossing bags of bread into the crowd.
Mimi and Doug Cowperthwaite of Cherry Hill walked away with a hot dozen, compliments of Tony Santa. They'd joined him in "Jingle Bells."
"What a great bunch of guys," she said. "There's more personality in the group than in all of Chicago."
A baker poked his head out of Sarcone's side door and thanked the men for coming. "Every year I've seen you guys."
He disappeared and a few minutes later returned with a pizza. On the house.
"First time that's happened," said Santa. " 'Tis the season."