I was maybe six years old when Santa lumbered through our front door, all jolly in his red suit, shiny black belt and white beard. My brother, age four, stared with Bambi eyes as Santa jangled a strap of bells, “ho, ho, ho’ed” and asked if we’d been good. “Yes,” we chanted together.
He believed us.
While my brother gave Santa a list of what he wanted for Christmas, I looked outside. No sleigh. No reindeer.
For a moment, Santa’s eyes widened. Then he threw back his head and laughed, a full-belly laugh that made his whiskers ripple. I couldn’t see anything funny, so I folded my arms and waited for an answer.
Santa finally lowered his eyes and with great solemness said Rudolph was organizing the other reindeer for tonight’s flight.
Hmm. . .
Flash forward a dozen years. I was a senior in high school, chomping at the bit like Santa’s reindeer, anxious for graduation and my entry into college. Determined to prove my worth as an adult, I’d loaded my days with extracurricular activities. Among these was volunteering at a nearby experimental school for children with “special needs.”
The concept was to bring together children who’d be outsiders at regular public schools into a single, sheltered setting. The “needs” ranged from emotional to physical. Children who couldn’t see rubbed shoulders with children confined to wheelchairs. One young lady painted detailed watercolors using a brush gripped between her teeth. A boy with severe Down’s syndrome couldn’t hold up his over-sized head, but he could offer a dazzling smile to everyone who passed. A bright ten-year-old bubbled with enthusiasm – except after weekends when her drug-addled mother attempted a visit.
Then there was a little blond I’ll call “Lily” whose deafness prevented her from hearing her mother’s words, the twitter of birds or the singing of carols.
My job was to help teachers supervise the children in the cafeteria, where everyone gathered before classes. We adults strolled the room, talking to the children while ensuring there were no fights, roughhousing or verbal bullying. In the process, I fell in love with each child, wanted to embrace and protect them all.
Which may be why as the holiday season approached, the principal asked me to coordinate a school-wide party. It would be a class-by-class event, maybe with carols and treats and, oh, did I know anyone who could play Santa?
Boy, did I ever.
The Santa from my childhood was “Uncle Bill”, a close family friend. By day, Bill Homze patrolled our small Pittsburgh suburb in his police car, watching over children and teenagers as we tramped to and from school. He knew every child’s name, where they lived, what sports or instrument they played, what mischief they might display. Just the knowledge that Uncle Bill was on the job somehow made our world safe.
The thought of introducing the best Santa in the whole darn world to the children I’d come to love thrilled me. And, yes, Uncle Bill would do it.
In preparation, I invited a select group of friends to sing carols. One friend played the flute; another the guitar. They promised to practice carols to accompany our singers. Mothers volunteered to bake cookies and cupcakes, a local butcher donated small cartons of orange juice. I solicited toy donations from other businesses and wrapped them in red paper for girls’ gifts, green for boys’. From my babysitting money I bought a Hardy Boys mystery for our artist who loved to read.
On the day of the party, we gathered outside the school. Uncle Bill greeted each volunteer by name, shook his string of jingle bells and led the way into the school.
Each class greeted our arrival with cheers and squeals. While Santa handed out presents, my friends and I sang accompanied by guitar and flute. Or at least, most of my friends sang.
“Why aren’t you singing?” I whispered.
“Don’t know the words.”
Don’t know the words to “Silent Night”?
My friend rolled her eyes. “It’s not exactly a Hanukkah song, now is it?”
I felt my own eyes widen. Yes, it was the holiday season. But not everyone celebrated Christmas. Yet these wonderful friends of mine volunteered to bring joy to these children. Even if it meant humming along to songs when they didn’t know the words.
We added a Hanukkah song to our repertoire and now it was my turn to hum along.
In the class for older children, I slipped the wrapped book to the artist. With a squeal she used her gnarled, club-like fingers to rip the paper. Before we even left the room, her nose was buried in the book.
Finally, we came to the last class, sang our last song, passed out the last gift. And then Lily approached Santa. Tugging on his coat, she pointed to the string of jingle bells he held.
My heart clenched. Until now, Lily had been laughing and giggling along with everyone else. What would she do, however, when she shook the bells and couldn’t hear them? I couldn’t bear to see Lily cry.
I opened my mouth to warn Uncle Bill, but he was already detaching the bells from his belt. Lily snagged the end and shook the string furiously. The bells jangled.
And Lily laughed. Eyes wide, head thrown back, she jangled the bells and skipped around Santa.
Did the bells chime at a frequency that Lily could actually hear? Or was she reacting to the feel of the things, the vibrations that surely tickled her fingers and raced up her arm?
Uncle Bill gave me a knowing wink. Whatever Lily was feeling or hearing, Santa knew the bells would produce this reaction.
So as we look forward to the coming year, perhaps we can all carry the joy of the holidays with us and channel our inner Santas in all our interactions with others, no matter how different they may be.
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