"Brown paper packages tied up with string, these are a few of my favorite things," sang Maria as she calmed the fears of the VonTrapp children in The Sound of Music. Over 50 years later, wrapped packages continue to elicit unbridled joy and challenge the patience of most children. At A Kid's Place, this couldn't be more true than during the holiday season, when children with backgrounds of abuse, neglect, or abandonment find themselves thrust into visits with Santa, deliveries of holiday cookies and confections, festive trees in the houses, and closed office doors with signs that read, "Santa's Workshop - Do Not Enter!"
"That's not Santa's workshop," 13 year old Byron scoffed. "There's no such thing as Santa."
"Why do you say that?" I asked, with all the wisdom of an adult who still believed in the magic of the jolly old elf himself.
"We never celebrated Christmas," he admitted. "My mom didn't have any money, and my dad was in jail. Last year, we got kicked out of our apartment and we had to live in our car. If there was really a Santa Claus, that wouldn't have happened."
I explained about Santa; facts based on a lifetime of believing in the spirit of Kris Kringle. "He's not a magic Genie who grants three wishes," I explained. "He's not God, who answers prayers. He's not a magician, who conjures up potions and spells. Santa Claus is a feeling. Santa Claus means people showing extra kindness. Santa Claus is Christmas carols, yule logs, decorated cookies, wreaths on doors, lights on roof eaves, and mistletoe."
"How about those dudes at the mall?" he asked suspiciously, but clearly gaining some interest. "They're not Santa!"
"Of course they're not," I explained. "Santa can't be in all those places at once. Those are his helpers, and they're all retired elves. Everyone knows that," I added with an air of superiority.
Byron was hooked; I could see it so clearly in his eyes. He wanted to believe, but he was too old. What would his friends say? How could he believe when he feared being let down once again?
"I'll make a Christmas list for you," I offered. "What do you want me to ask Santa for?" I licked the tip of my pencil and got ready to take notes, certain that Bryon would begin with Beats by Dre headphones and a tablet or a drone.
"I'd like to go home," he admitted.
"That's not a gift," I reminded him. "Can't wrap that up and put it in the sleigh. Come on, what else? I'll write it down."
"My sister loves horses; I could get a horse for her Barbie doll. I saw it at Wal-Mart." I had him...now I just needed to reel him in.
"Got it," I assured him. "How about something for yourself?"
I have to give the kid credit; he really put some thought into it. If he was going to be let down again, he was going to say he at least gave it a good effort. "My mom likes perfume - that's small and would fit into the sleigh."
I wrote it down, but I wasn't giving up. "Now something for you, Byron. I'm putting it on the list...checking it twice...do you want me to make up something myself or can you come up with something you really want Santa to bring you?"
Byron looked down at the ground and shuffled his feet. Finally he looked up and I believed, just for a moment, that the holiday sparkle was there. Just a glimpse through the eyes of a scared young man who had steeled himself against all good things coming his way. He was getting it! He was the Grinch realizing that Christmas was more than Santa and presents and past disappointments ("Maybe Christmas," he thought, "...doesn't come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps...means a little bit more!" From How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss)
"I'd like a Transformer," he admitted.
"Brilliant!" I crowed, even though Transformers are typically suitable for a much younger child, but who was I to judge?
"I've always wanted one; I know they're kind of babyish, but I never had one and I want to try it out. See if it really transforms like the commercial says it does."
"Got it," I assured him, scribbling furiously.
Brown paper packages tied up with string my be one of my OLD favorite things, but today I'm particularly fond of a simple toy for a young man who has grown up missing out on the magic of Christmas, the spirit of Santa Claus, and all the merriment the holidays represent. Tomorrow I will wrap up a Transformer, a bottle of perfume, and Barbie's horse and place them under the tree for Byron. Because that's the true holiday spirit. Santa would be proud.