You can not recognize your natural environment for what it is until you leave it. Example: I grew up believing that I was middle class, because everyone was middle class, right? Therefore, the kids I went to school with, who all got comparatively more toys than me, were rich. The fact that their parents worked non-rich jobs like cop, fireman, and other varieties of civil servant never crossed my mind. Then I went to college and ran into actual Rich Kids for the first time and realized, to my horror, “No, those kids you went to school with were middle class; you were broke.”
This is a tale in the same vein, about a longstanding local Christmas tradition in the Orange County, NY area. And not even the whole county; really, just a concentrated part of it that happened to include my hometown. A farm supply/nursery in New Windsor called Devitt’s hosted an annual holiday attraction called Christmas on the Farm, something to entertain the kiddies while mom and dad shopped for chicken feed and Weed-B-Gone. (Though they were quickly being devoured by housing developments to accommodate the growing needs of White Flight, farms could still be found in the area in them days.) Christmas on the Farm involved petting zoos and Yuletide displays, but the highlight came at the very end, where you got to meet and talk to Eggbert.
Eggbert was an animatronic egg who sat on a large throne and wore a crown. His relation to any aspect of Christmas, religious or secular, was never explained. But it was understood that much like Santa, you told Eggbert what you wanted to see under the tree and he would deliver. Eggbert was voiced by an adult with a microphone, hidden behind one-way glass. Kids were given name tags so when they reached their final destination, Eggbert’s voicer could impart some personalized holiday greetings to them. In kid lore, a trip to Eggbert was not exactly equivalent to a trip to see a Mall Santa, but it was definitely a good way to hedge your bets.
I went to see Eggbert throughout my childhood, and so did every other kid within a 20-mile radius of Devitt’s. That was simply what you did at Christmastime. You questioned it no more than a fish questions the wetness of the ocean.
It never occurred to me any of this might be strange until I left home and had to explain this tradition to people who hadn’t grown up in Orange County. You see, when I was growing up there, everyone was growing up there, but it turns out lots of people hadn’t grown up there. In fact, most everyone in the entire world hadn’t grown up there. Crazy!
The first time I tried to describe Eggbert to a non-believer was a soul-crushing experience. (Like many of my soul-crushing experiences, it happened freshman year of college.) Each word that came out of my mouth made it all sound exponentially more deranged. Hold on, someone would say. Why did you tell your Christmas list to an egg? Why was it an egg? Why was he wearing a crown? I had accepted the Eggbert tradition with such childlike openness that the weirdness of it all never once occurred to me until this very moment. Now I felt like everyone’s parents had played an elaborate, cruel joke on all of us kids.
Appropriately enough, around the time the scales fell from my eyes, rumors flew that Eggbert met an untimely end. Depending on who you asked, he had either succumbed to a fire or was thrown into a dumpster like common trash. This possibility was sad for two reasons, the first being that I felt like I’d lost an important (albeit bizarre) aspect of my childhood. The second reason is the absence of Eggbert prevented me from proving I hadn’t made the whole thing up.
In fact, the rumors of Eggbert’s death were greatly exaggerated. The Christmas on the Farm event was retired for a while, and Eggbert along with it. However, Eggbert was simply in storage, not burned or discarded, and new management at Devitt’s has revived him. And now, no one can think I’m insane when I talk about him because Eggbert received a feature in The New York Times this past Sunday. Seeing this blew my mind; the Times never ventures beyond Park Slope, let alone into Orange County. The fact that they did so brands Eggbert with the stamp of officialdom.
I have to say, the slideshow that accompanies this story makes it look far more polished and professional than I remember. In my head, Eggbert’s “throne” was a hastily constructed thing made of plywood, and the other attractions were at the same level of presentation. But Eggbert himself is exactly how I remember: jug-handle ears, arched eyebrows, bejeweled crown cocked jauntily upon his ovoid frame.
The author does not really attempt to explain anything about Eggbert because, as I found out years ago, that is nearly impossible. He does provide the fascinating tidbit that Eggbert was a originally intended to be a shill for the upstate egg industry. The original owner of Devitt’s bought Eggbert and repurposed for his annual holiday display. It’s not clear what exactly inspired him to make Eggbert a Santa Claus manqué, but then I think some things are best left to the imagination, don’t you?
I applaud the return of Eggbert for a whole new generation of kids, even if today’s tykes might be a little more questioning than I was. Regional Weirdness is slowly dying in our world, and the few examples that remain are often held up for ridicule. There should be room in our nation, and our hearts, for a talking Egg Man who wants to hear your Christmas wish list.