Dad as Santa in 1969 with me and my siblings...Maria (7), Mark (2), Barb (9), and me (12 in the cool specs!)
originally posted December 12, 2008
Dad has always loved Christmas! Some of my very special and favorite Christmas memories revolve around Dad dressing up as Santa for some very special Christmas parties for some very special people.
Living out on the County Line, real Christmas parties like we saw on TV or read about in school were beyond our imagination. There were no Christmas balls or galas for us to attend. The closest thing we had to a special Christmas party was our classroom gift exchange and school Christmas program.
But every year, Dad and Mama always helped out with a special party with some people from our church. And when I was old enough, was allowed to go too.
This party was not a gala event in an elegant ballroom with attendees dressed in finery dancing, chattering, giggling, and kissing under the mistletoe. No, this party was quite different. The partiers were adults, but childlike in their speech and behavior, some wearing helmets or constraints to protect them from themselves. Some were wheelchair-bound and others were even lying in grown-up-sized cribs. But these resident patients at the State Hospital were always excited to see Santa!
Mama, ever the expert seamstress, designed and stitched Dad's Santa costume from red and white flannel. My dad, a former Golden Gloves champion boxer, was (and is!) a big, strong fellow. Of course, we all knew that below that tough exterior there is a soft heart of gold, but he has an intimidating presence. When he put on that magical Santa suit, Dad's macho presence melted away. He was a real softie when it came to playing Santa at those parties, and as his daughter, it was an amazing transformation to witness.
Dad would "Ho-ho-ho!" his way into the ward and those patients were so thrilled to see Santa! He made his way through the room, taking time to speak to and touch each one, making them all fell special. If some wanted to sit on his lap, he gladly set these big adult/children on his knee and visited with them. They would reach out to feel his beard and touch his hair, fascinated with Santa. There were others in our church group that came to the party, but Santa was clearly the star of the show. Santa passed out wrapped gifts to each one and "oohed" and "aahed" with them as they ripped open their packages. Some of the patients were unaware of what was going on, and Dad would gently help them open their gifts too.
It was a little frightening for me, and I understood why I wasn't allowed to go when I was younger. I had never seen people so severely mentally and physically disabled. The State Hospital officials would walk us down dim sterile hallways and unlock (then relock behind us!) the doors to the wards we visited. Patients would reach out and grab at me, trying to get my attention. There was always someone curled up or sitting on the floor rocking themselves back and forth, and once I even saw someone banging her helmeted head against the floor. There were cries and noises and mutterings that were indecipherable. These were society's outcasts, locked away and often abandoned and forgotten, cared for by strangers in overcrowded wards. I wondered how a person could possibly work there, thinking that perhaps insanity was contagious. The blank faces were haunting and scary. And I remember feeling incredibly blessed and thankful that our family had never had to deal with such tragedy, and compassion and sympathy for those who had, and unspeakable admiration for those who gave their lives helping the least of these children of God.
I'm sure that was the very reason Dad and Mama wanted me to go. Visiting those wards was more effective than all the teaching and preaching in the world. Through their unselfish gift to these patients each Christmas, they taught us by example what Christmas is all about. They showed us that every one of God's children is precious and valuable to Him, even though they may seem to be discarded by the world. It was a valuable lesson, and one that I've often been reminded of over the years.
Those special Christmas parties are really at the heart of what Christmas is all about. God sent His own Son, Jesus Christ, into the world for all of us, no matter our circumstances. And He admonishes us to love each other as He has loved us.
That's exactly what my dad did each Christmas as he spread God's love to these special people. Looking really close, I'm pretty sure I saw a tear or two in Santa's eyes more than once at those parties. And I have to believe that those tears must have made God smile!