I didn’t think I was going to have much Christmas spirit this year.
My great-aunt had a heart attack at our house on Thanksgiving, and passed away within days. She was the last of my great-aunts and uncles on my father’s side of the family, and, in my mind, the end of a generation.
While she and my late Uncle Tony did not have any children of their own, I, along with my parents and brother, thought of them as an extended set of parents and grandparents. They were always around for family dinner after church each Sunday, and were our favorite guests on holidays. I knew this year wouldn’t be the same.
So, when I was asked to fill in for Mrs. Claus alongside Santa at a Christmas event for children at Picasso’s Pizza a few weeks later, I was a bit leery. Would I be happy and jolly enough? Nevertheless, I said yes. The attire included a beautiful crimson velour dress, with white fur trim along the neckline and sleeves. A black belt and snug red bonnet completed the look.
A few days later, I crossed paths with Roy Costa, principal of John Wickes who mentioned Santa was planning to stop by his school. We chatted and not that I volunteered, but I found myself agreeing Mrs. Claus could visit the school Dec. 21.
The stress of losing a family member was still heavy. I hadn’t done much Christmas shopping, and deadlines seemed to whiz by faster than you could say, “Happy Holidays.” And the recent shooting in Connecticut certainly didn’t lift spirits. Despite the cold weather, I was feeling the heat.
But much of the pressure melted away as I stepped into the hallways of John Wickes. I tucked my long, dark hair into the bonnet, and slipped on the dress. I was no longer myself: I was Mrs. Claus. Santa and I made our way through the school, popping in each classroom one-by-one to surprise the children.
When the youngest of them saw me, their eyes glowed, and their comments not only filled me with comfort and joy, they made me chuckle. Aside from telling me their Christmas lists, a boy said I look much older in books and movies than in person, while a girl said, “You’re not Mrs. Claus. You’re that newspaper reporter lady.” She had my number, but I was quick: I told her I worked for Santa, too.
It wasn’t until one little boy wrapped his arms around my legs, looked up at me and said, “Mrs. Claus, I love you,” that I thought of my aunt, and the love she brought to me year after year. I hugged him back, and a rush of good tidings soared through me.
That feeling erupted in my heart again at Picasso’s the following day. A 7-month-old baby’s eyes sparkled as he met Santa for the first time; young girls giggled as they made picture frames at an arts and crafts table; and boys happily played with toys.
Before I left, I asked a few what they enjoy best about Christmas. Their responses didn’t disappoint me. Almost all said they like spending time with family most, while one little boy answered with just a few words.
“Gifts,” he said. I asked, “Giving them or getting them?” He didn’t think twice before saying, “Giving them.”
Little did he know he gave me the best gift of all: a big smile when I needed it most. In the wake of tragedy, whether it be something monumental that impacts us all, or a private struggle, let us embrace the positive outlook of children as we head into the New Year. And while problems can’t be rectified overnight, a few hugs along the way can’t hurt.