It was the annual Christmas party at the 48th Ward Democratic Club in South Philadelphia. My father, in those days, was a committeeman, and all the politicians and their families were invited to the party.

It was held at The Club, a storefront bar on 20th Street, and for that day wives and children were welcome.

It was the Saturday before Christmas, a blustery, shiny-cold day, and The Club was decorated for the holidays - a Christmas tree, tinsel, blinking lights and green Cellophane swags swinging from the ceiling.

You could smell the stale cigar smoke and beer left over from the Friday-night trade, but if you stood close to the Christmas tree, every once in a while you would get a whiff of pine sap.

The Club was one large room - the bar along one side and the unused tables pushed back against the far wall, the chairs upended on the tables.

Little boys with Tinkertoys and trucks were on their knees playing with their new toys, and the little girls clutched babydolls or tea sets and argued with one another.

And, in the middle of the room, there he was - the scary-smiling man with the white beard and the red suit and the black boots with clean soles.

My father took me to the end of a small line of children who were waiting to see Santa Claus, and I silently moved along, wrapped in dreams and visions of golden dolls and dainty blue-willow play dishes. The pile of toys beside Santa was getting smaller as he handed out the gifts and I saw, as I approached him, that there was only one doll left, and oh, how I wanted that doll."AND WHAT DO YOU WANT FOR CHRISTMAS?" the voice boomed down at me.

He was talking to me, and there I was, not more than five years old, standing in front of him, my snow-suit leggings on, the hem of my dress tucked into them, and my hat pulled tightly down over my short Prince Valiant bangs and Dutch Boy haircut.

"HAVE YOU BEEN GOOD THIS YEAR? HO, HO, HO! DID YOU DO EVERYTHING YOUR MOMM AND DADDY TOLD YOU TO DO? HO, HO, HO!

And there I stood, the lump in my throat getting larger every second and my mouth frozen shut. I stared at those black boots that looked exactly like my father's galoshes and didn't say a word.

"CAT GOT YOUR TONGUE, EH?" SANTA REACHED OUT TO TAKE MY HAND, BUT I PULLED BACK, STILL STARING AT HIS BOOTS, AFRAID TO LOOK UP FOR FEAR THAT HE WOULDN'T REALLY BE THERE, TALKING TO ME.

I MUST HAVE BEEN HOLDING UP THE LINE AND SANTA MUST HAVE FIGURED I WAS THIS POOR DOPEY KID HE HAD TO GET RID OF FAST.

"HERE," he said, "THIS IS FOR . . . FOR BEIGN SUCH A GOOD BOY ALL YEAR." AND HE HANDED ME . . . A YELLOW DUMPTRUCK.

I OPENED MY MOUTH TO PROTEST THAT I WAS A GIRL, BUT SANTA WAS ALREADY TALKING TO ANOTHER CHILD WHO WAS BEINNING TO RECITE A LIT-ANY OF "I WANT A"S.

I STUMBLED AWAY, THE TRUCK IN MY HANDS AND THE TEARS BLINDING ME. MY BROTHER, FRANKIE, SAW ME. "CONNIE, WHAT ARE YOU DOING WITH THAT TRUCK?" I COULDN'T ANSWER HIM, SO FRANKIE TOO ME TO WHERE THE ADULTS WERE TALKIGN AND DRINKING GINGER ALE.

MY MOTHER TOOK ONE LOOK AT ME, THE TEARS, THE DUMPTRUCK IN MY HAND, AND PUT IT ALL TOGETHER.

"HE GAVE YOU THE WRONG TOY." I NODDED.

"WHY DIDN'T YOU SAY SOMETHING TO HIM?"

"HE SAID IT WAS BECAUSE I HAD BEEN A GOOD BOY ALL YEAR," I SOBBED.

"HE GAVE YOU THE WRONG TOY," MY MOTHER REPEATED. "HE GOT MIXED UP." SHE DIDN'T EXPLAIN WHY HE CALLED ME "A GOOD BOY," THOUGH. "DON'T WORRY," SHE SAID GENTLY, "WE'LL FIX IT."

MY MOTHER TAPPED MY FATHER'S SHOULDER.

"FRANK, GO TELL HIM HE GAVE HER THE WRONG TOY." SHE MOTIONED WITH HER HEAD AT ME AND THE DUMPTRUCK.

MY FATHER BENT DOWN AND TOOK MY HAND AGAIN. "WE'LL GET YOU ANOTHER TOY," HE SAID. HE LED ME OVER TO WHERE SANTA SAT HY HIMSELF, MUNCHING ON A PRETZEL.

"UH, SANTA CLAUS, DID YOU MEET MY DAUGHTER, CONNIE?" HE ASKED AND STARED HARD AT THE DUMPSTRUCK IN MY HAND.

"GEEZ, FRANK," SANTA SAID, "I THOUGHT SHE WAS A BOY. I DIDN'T KNOW SHE WAS YOUR DAUGHTER." THEN HE TURNED TO ME, AND GRABBED THE TRUCK AND LOOKED AT THE FEW REMAINING GIFTS BY HIS CHAIR.

THE DOLL WAS GONE! INSTEAD, I GOT A TEA SET TO PLAY WITH ON RAINY DAYS. SANTA GAVE IT TO ME BECAUSE, HE SAID, I "WAS A GOOD LITTLE GIRL, A PRETTY LITTLE GIRL, ALL YEAR." IT WAS A LOVELY TEA SET WITH LITTLE CUPS THAT HELD THIMBLEFULS OF WATER. I STILL HAVE THEM - THEY'RE AWAY WITH A MINIATURE CHINA CLOSET IN MY FATHER'S HOME.

I GOT A DOLL FOR CHRISTMAS THAT YEAR - A BLONDE ONE THAT SAID "MOMMA" AND DRANK WATER FROM A BOTTLE AND THEN WET OVER EVERYTHING. IT WAS A BEAUTIFUL DOLL, BUT I NEVER TRUSTED SANTA CLAUS AGAIN. OH, SURE, I WENT TO SEE HIM A COUPLE MORE TIMES, BUT I GUESS IN MY FIVE-YEAR-OLD WAY I FIGURED IF HE COULDN'T GET HIS ACT TOGETHER WITH ME STANDING THERE IN FRONT OF HIM, HOW WAS HE EVER GOING TO REMEMBER WHO I WAS IF HE HAD TO HANDLE ALL THE KIDS IN THE WORLD IN ONE NIGHT?

THERE'S ONE THING, THOUGH. I HAVE THIS PHOBIA ABOUT NOT CUTTING MY HAIR SHORT AROUND CHRISTMAS TIME - JUST IN CASE I EVER RUN INTO A MAN IN A RED SUIT WITH CLEAN-SOLED BOOTS!