Monday, December 05, 2005

... It's for the Kids ...

I am very involved with my kids and their activities. I'm a Cub Scout leader, a Team Manager for Destination Imagination, and teach CCD for our Church. I attend every weekend or night function, and do my best to get to every function during the day. I'm involved, and I do pretty well as a leader and motivator of kids - and I love doing it. But when I got a call a week ago to help as a volunteer at the lower elementary school's (preschool - grade 2) 'Breakfast With Santa' I stepped into uncharted territory.

My kids are very smart, but they differ in how they see the world. My younger son has an imagination that runs rampant in both directions - he came up with more than half the ideas for our town's Haunted House, including a fully realized 'Monster Lab' in which he got up in the middle of the room and told the entire room (of mostly adults) what would be where, and what would happen ... and it was great. But that same imagination kept him from ever stepping foot in the finished Haunted House. My older son is much more of a pragmatist - he is very creative, but is much more analytical and is always trying to work things out.

When it comes to Santa, while both know that the 'Santa' at our December CubScout pack meeting is the Scoutmaster in a suit, they approach the other 'Santa's Helpers' in different ways. My older son understands that Santa can't be everywhere so there are helpers, and that sometimes people just dress up like Santa for fun at parties. My wife and I believe our younger son will go to college thinking any guy he sees in December with a white beard and red suit is *the* Santa.

It should be pretty obvious what I was asked - to play Santa for the kids. There was some talk last Monday, but I didn't get the call until Thursday night - but since I already knew it was likely to come, I was prepared and said yes immediately. But then we had to decide what to tell the kids - do we tell them, hint at it, or just not say anything. We decided not to say anything - not lie or avoid, just that I was working, and had to be there earlier than them (my wife was also working, but didn't have to be there before it opened.)

I was very nervous about doing this, which is somewhat strange. My wife thought it hilarious, since I don't even blink an eye about presenting controversial technical subjects at conferences to audiences that have exceeded 1000 people, where I know I'll be challeneged by some of the brightest people in the semiconductor industry. But here I was, all out of sorts at the thought of having a couple of hundred kids come sit on my lap for a picture and tell me what they wanted for Christmas. But I don't get nervous for work stuff because I know what I know, and am not afraid of what I don't know. With kids, all bets are off - and even if I'm not the *real* Santa, I wanted to be the best Santa's Helper I could, making the experience as magical as possible.

All of my visits to various Santa photo opportunities have been from the other side - either as the kid or adult. The most I've ever had to worry about was when my older son was 1 and didn't want to be left with Santa and it turned into a family photo. So seeing it from the other side was eye-opening. The kids were all respectful - people asked me later if I got my beard pulled or anything. Far from it, the most common reaction was *AWE*. Sure, there were many kids who were afraid, and wanted nothing to do with me, and other who wanted to stand next to the chair (if I saw a kid looking tentative I offered that as a choice), just as there were kids who came right out of line to hug me, most kids were very respectful, keeping their distance and giving me a smile and a wave.

Just in case you thought it only happened to you - kids tell Santa everything, and most parents are left straining to make sure they hear everything their child is saying or asking for. I heard it all, from shoes to laptops and everything in between - as most kids were in first or second grade, GBA was a very popular request, as was all things Barbie and Bratz - and I tried to make each kid feel special be saying how wonderful their idea was, with some details if I knew them.

Only one kid knew who I was, and it was one of my older son's friends. I gave him a wink and his mother glared at him as if to say "if you say anything to your little brother I'll kill you!" There was a teenager whose mother worked at the school and wanted a picture of her daughter with Santa. Her daughter was very nervous and embarrassed, so I told her 'remember, you can't actually die of embarrassment', which made her chuck and put her at ease.

The saddest thing was two kids whose only wish for Christmas was that their family be happy - these were kids under 8, and there were some obvious issues, probably a recent death or divorce, but sadness permeated their faces. I said I'd do what I could and would pray for them as well ... and I have.

My own kids ... I bet you wondered what they thought? Well, neither one really said anything, but I bet my older son knew. He was poking around it as we were getting ready to leave, but there were still a bunch of little kids there so I deflected the questions with non-answers, but as soon as we were home I talked about things and left it wide open ... he talked a couple of times as if he might ask, but I was going to make him do it himself rather than pushing it. When he mentioned talking to his friend I figured that was it, but he sidestepped it. My younger son never went there - where I saw skepticism and exploring in my older son's eyes as he approached me/Santa, with my younger son there was only pure wonder. He told me his secret wish for Christmas - that Rudolph would visit him sometime. And when we got home he told us that he had told Santa his secret wish - but *still* wouldn't tell any of us ... and this is the kid who can't stop from telling anyone anything! It was truly a great experience ... next year both of my boys will be in the 'upper elementary' school (3rd - 5th grades), and there are no Santa parties, so this might have been a one time magical experience.

As it says in the end of 'Polar Express', so long as you hear that bell, the magic of Christmas is yours ... I still hear it, as does my wife, and we hope you all do too and have a wonderful Christmas!

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