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Adopting a Family for Christmas December 19, 2009

Posted by alwaysjan in Holidays.
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8 comments

This year I adopted a family for the holidays at my school. Staff and parent volunteers worked tirelessly to deliver baskets to 80-plus families.

In the spirit of recycling, I came across the first story I ever had published and thought I’d reprint it.  Operation Santa Claus was appeared in Parents in December 1993.  When I reread the article, what jumped out was how my writing has evolved.  I’m inserting some original commentary in italics that was edited out.  My original piece wasn’t so saccharine. WARNING:  Reading this could induce a diabetic coma.  Always, Jan

Operation Santa Claus

Last year, as Christmas approached, I started wondering if this would be my son Taylor’s last Christmas as a believer.  After all, he was eight, and as a native new Yorker, he’s a born skeptic.

But my husband, Richard, and I had perpetuated the myth of Santa very well. Taylor and his five-year-old brother, Ian, wholeheartedly believed that a man who had a belly that shook like a bowl full of jelly parked his team of flying reindeer on the roof of our ten-story apartment building and popped down our chimney to deliver presents to us.  Each Christmas Eve, Santa wrote the boys a long letter in flowing script.  Each Christmas morning, the boys found the fireplace screen pushed aside and  large boot print in the soot, irrefutable proof that Santa did indeed exist.

I wanted to help Taylor – who spent hours working on his list for Santa, even attaching coupons in case there was a Toys “R” Us near the North Pole – begin to understand the joy of giving before he discovered the truth.  But how?

That’s when I heard about Operation Santa Claus.  Sixty-plus years ago, clerks at the New York City General Post Office knew that the letters addressed to Santa that they received would go unanswered.  So they dug into their own pockets to buy food and toys for the children. Eventually the public was invited to respond to the letters, and today many cities have similar programs.  I decided to enlist Taylor’s help.

I wandered around the crowded post office lobby until I found Santa’s official post-office box: a cardboard cutout of jolly old Saint Nick, and two long festively decorated tables that were laden with boxes of letters labeled “New York State” “New Jersey” and “Foreign,” as well as one box for each New York City borough.  I joined a dozen or so people who were busily sifting through the piles of letters.

There were many poignant stories.  One was from a needy mother asking for food and clothes for her children.  Another was from a special education teacher who asked for class supplies. After several minutes, I found the letter that touched my heart.  It was written by a child who lived in a New York City public housing project and began, “Dear Santa, I believe in you.”  I read on.

“I hope you and Mrs. Claus are fine and healthy.  I’ve been sick with asthma and that feels so bad.  My name is Maria, and I am almost 11 years old.  I have three brothers – Juan, age 16, Jose, age 15, and Carlos, age 9.  Carlos is handicapped, but I say to everyone that he is handicapable.

This year we all have been through a lot of scares and crying, including Mom, because Carlos has been very sick and in and out of the hospital.  He has a brain tumor and gets seizures. Our wish is for Carlos to get cured and to be able to walk, talk, and be normal.”

“Carlos and I share a room, and because he’s so sick, he still sleeps in a crib. So for Carlos, I wish a beautiful crib set – one with sheets and a pillow and curtains to match and a quilt.  He loves Mickey Mouse.”

“I would like an American Beauty Queen Barbie.  Juan and Jose would like some presents too. And can you also bring my mommy something?  She always gives to us and she never gets anything for herself.

“Thank you Santa.  I love you, Maria.”

A postal worker sitting behind the table smiled at me and said, “Did you find a letter?”  I nodded, and she handed me a form to sign.  I tucked Maria’s letter in my pocket and hummed Christmas musical all the way home.

Later that night, reality set in.  How could I afford gifts for other children when I could hardly afford them for my own?  (I have to admit, I wondered if maybe the letter was a scam – really, a brother with a brain tumor?) I considered returning the letter but instead let it sit in a drawer for several days.  Still ambivalent, I took a chance and shared it with Taylor.

He was shocked.  “How did you get Santa’s mail?” he queried.  I told him about Operation Santa Claus, but he still didn’t understand.  “Santa will bring Maria the presents she wants,” he said with conviction.

I took a deep breath but was surprised at how easily the words came out. “Making children happy at Christmas is too big a job for just one person to do, even Santa Claus,” I blurted. “Santa needs all the help he can get.”

Taylor went for the lure.  It was as though Santa himself had asked Taylor to be one of his elves.  We resolved that we would answer the letter.  But Christmas was only ten days away, and we had our work cut out for us.  We made a list of Maria’s requests.

The next day I went shopping for a Mickey Mouse crib set.  But even at a discount store, the set cost $45, well beyond our budget.  I called all my friends, but was unsuccessful in locating a used crib set.  I started to get discouraged.

Maria had included her phone number in her letter, so I nervously called her mom.  “You don’t know me,” I said, “But I’m a friend of Santa’s, and I’m calling about Maria’s letter to Santa Claus.”

There was a long silence.  Then Maria’s mom made the connection.  I was relieved to find her warm and friendly.

I was honest with Maria’s mom about our financial situation.  “Of all the people who could have picked your daughter’s letter, I’m afraid you’re stuck with us,” I apologized.  Maria’s mom assured me that any gift, no matter how small, would mean a great deal to Maria.

Sadly, Maria’s mom confirmed that Carlos had a brain tumor and she told me that he didn’t have long to live.  She also told me that Carlos loved to watch cartoons and that Maria had a tape player and liked music, which gave me some ideas.  Maria’s mom and I set a time on Christmas Eve for the package to be delivered.

The big day was only a week away, and Taylor stopped working on his “want” list to join me in a last-minute scavenger hunt.  This is what we found:

•  At the Salvation Army: a just-like-new Mickey Mouse T-shirt.  Paired with some bright red leggings, we had a pair of pajamas for Carlos.

• At home: two never-worn boys’ shirts, a Sesame Street book, and a video of classic Mickey Mouse cartoons.

• From Ian’s kindergarten teacher: an extra copy of a book-and-tape set called Las Navidades, which featured Christmas songs from Puerto Rico (where Maria’s family was from).

• From holiday visitors:  a large store-bought Italian cake, festively wrapped and decorated with Santa stickers, and homemade bread shaped like teddy bears.

• Finally I splurged and paid ten dollars for a video cassette tape of Home Alone.  I also bought some Christmas candy.  Behind the cash register was an enticing display of giant brass jingle bells dangling on red satin strings. “I’ll take four of those too,” I heard myself say.

The day before Christmas Eve, we needed one more item: a Barbie doll for Maria.  I was surprised when Taylor, who gags at the mere sight of a Barbie commercial, announced that he would help me choose one.  Our budget limited us to buying a special-edition Barbie made exclusively for a discount department store.

On the morning of December 24, we found an old corrugated plastic postal carton on the sidewalk in front of our apartment.  It looked very official, so we carried it inside and washed it in the bathtub.  Then we stenciled “To Maria” on one side and “From the North Pole” on the other.  We wrapped the loot in Christmas paper and tied it up with a red ribbon.

Midafternoon, I sat down to write Maria a letter.  I explained that I was fortunate to be one of Santa’s friends.  I told her that I wished with all my heart that Carlos would be better, but sometimes all the love, money, and prayers in the world couldn’t change what was destined to happen.  I also told her that Carlos was lucky to have such a loving sister, for there is no greater gift than love.  I remember crying as I signed the letter “Merry Christmas, Maria. From one of Santa’s many helpers.”

The sun was starting to sink low in the sky when we pulled on our coats. (The housing project was on the Lower East Side, and to be honest, I wanted to get in and out of that neighborhood before dark.) “Wait a minute,” yelled Taylor. “What about snow?  If a package came from the North Pole, it would have snow on it!” Needless to say, there was not an inch of snow in New York City.  So we made some by chiseling ice out of the freezer. We packed several large “snowballs” into a cup.  Finally we were ready.

Richard, Ian, Taylor, and I donned our jingle-bell necklaces and then raced out of our apartment building and down the subway steps.  As people heard us jingling, they turned their heads and smiled at us.

A short while later, we found Maria’s building – a drab institutional high-rise. Richard and Ian held the elevator door while Taylor and I tiptoed over to Maria’s front door and set the box down.  Taylor sprinkled “snow” on the package, and then he took off his necklace and hung it around the top of the package.  “She’ll love this,” he whispered.

We shook our jingle bells and banged on Maria’s door.  As soon as we heard footsteps, we ran for the elevator.  The apartment door opened, and Maria’s mother called out, “Thank you! Merry Christmas!”

Once outside, Taylor was ecstatic  We’d pulled it off! Maria would never expect.  “Next year,” announced Taylor, “I want to answer three letters!”

That night at home, we sat around a roaring fire and drank hot cocoa. Taylor and Ian carefully laid out nine carrots, one for each of Santa’s reindeer. Once the boys were asleep, Santa filled their stockings and placed the presents under the tree.

On Christmas morning, Taylor and Ian awoke to find the carrots gone and the fireplace screen pushed aside.  The same child who had sprinkled snow on Maria’s package carefully examined the boot print in the soot and proclaimed that it was, indeed, Santa’s.

I’m no longer worried about Taylor’s finding out the truth.  Whether he realized it or not, he already knows the biggest truth of the season.  It is better to give than to receive. I think he is going to make a terrific Santa.

I, Santa Claus December 7, 2008

Posted by alwaysjan in Holidays, Parenting.
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6 comments

santa7

My son, Ian, was in the third grade when I, Santa Claus, was exposed. Only weeks after Christmas, Ian approached me with a bewildered expression on his face, clutching a piece of paper. “Why do you have all my letters to Santa Claus?” he asked point blank. Oh s**t! He’d found our cache of letters the boys had written to the big jolly man.

The frozen look on my face said it all. “You’re Santa Claus?” Ian asked incredulously. (Yeah, like I couldn’t eat a plate full of cookies.)  “I…I…I am,” I stammered, and my son burst into tears. Before I could begin to explain how this ruse worked, I saw my confession’s stunning ripple effect. Still wailing, Ian choked out, “And the Easter Bunny?” I nodded. More tears. “And what about the Tooth Fairy?” At this point I was so busted that I merely hung my head. Ian locked himself in his room and a tsunami of tears followed. What my son didn’t see were my tears.

You have to understand. As a child I loved Santa Claus. Just at that age (third grade), when everyone else was muttering something about Santa being your parents, I received a pair of roller skates from Santa that were the wrong size. This was proof that Santa WAS real. My parents would have known what size to buy me. But with so many children in the world, I could forgive Santa for not knowing my exact size. This mistake bought me (and my parents) another year of me being a “believer.” To be honest, I don’t even remember when I finally figured out Santa was my parents, or if we even talked about it. Maybe it was so traumatic, I’ve supressed the memory. But I tend to think I finally realized that it was a bit of a stretch that some jolly fat guy could deliver gifts all around the world without routing them all through Memphis.

When our first son, Taylor, was born, we were eager go play Santa. It’s the role of a lifetime and we played it to the max.  We were living in New York City and the city is magical at Christmas. One year friends invited us to their block association’s “Visit from Santa” event at a small park in Chelsea. It was freezing and we huddled together stomping our feet to try and stay warm while awaiting Santa’s arrival.

All of a sudden we heard a jolly, “Ho ho ho!” We looked up and there on the rooftop of a three-story brownstone, illuminated against a starry sky, stood Santa waving!  I got goosebumps. I was five years old again. I was a Believer!   Moments later, Santa emerged from the front door of the brownstone with his bag slung over his shoulder. He passed out advent calendars filled with chocolates before disappearing into a waiting Cadillac. It was only later, I found out that Santa was actually a Jewish guy named Morty. Morty was so overjoyed that he’d married off his last daughter, he asked if he could play Santa that year. That’s what I love about New York.

When Ian was born the next year, his big brother Taylor was only too happy to fill him in on Santa’s penchant for cookies and his elusive nature.

On Christmas Eve, the boys would write their letters to Santa. When they finally drifted off to sleep, we went to work. I snarfed the cookies then wrote a letter from Santa on parchment paper with a calligraphy pen. I even burned the edges so it looked like something out of a storybook. Before Richard and I went to bed, we pulled out the fireplace screen just a tad and made big sooty footprints over to where the cookies had been. It was a crime scene worthy of CSI.

One year the stockings looked so adorable hanging above the fireplace that Richard took a Polaroid. The mirror hanging over the fireplace reflected the flash and the image blurred. It actually looked like a being of light was moving toward the fireplace. In the morning we excitedly told the boys how we’d heard a noise and rushed out to the living room just in time to snap a picture of Santa. Taylor was determined to contact the National Enquirer because he knew they’d pay lots of money for a “real” picture of Santa. “Finally,” he announced.  “We have proof!”

Taylor figured out the Santa thing by the fourth grade. We were living outside Seattle by then and he seemed nonplussed.  He said it explained why Santa always gave gifts out of the Hearthsong catalog. That year Taylor helped set up the stocking for Ian and enjoyed watching his little brother delight in seeing what Santa had brought on Christmas morning. After we moved back to LA, Taylor continued to play along. Wink, wink.

So Ian’s heartfelt tears were like a knife to my heart. This wasn’t how I’d imagined it. But how much of life isn’t? So what did we do to help our traumatized son deal with the TRUTH. Taylor finally lured Ian out of his room and we all went to see a movie – a violent movie.  All I remember is it was rated R and there was lots of shooting, which as we all know, Santa wouldn’t approve of. Ian walked out of the theater and the storm had passed.

Ian is now 22 and loves to retell the story about finding Santa’s letters. The funny thing is his favorite thing about Christmas is still coming out to see what Santa has left in his stocking. (We tried to phase the stocking out when he was 17, but he wouldn’t hear of it). So I told Ian if I, Santa, still have to fill a stocking then he has to write “Santa” a letter. So Ian writes a letter giving me (I mean Santa) an update on his college grades, and I, Santa write a letter back, but don’t bother to burn the edges. And I still get to eat the cookies!