While Santa Claus gives gifts to children, sometimes children give gifts to Santa.
For five years, I played the role of Santa at the Nassau County Bar Association’s annual children’s party. At the end of the first hour, which involved the building of gingerbread houses, I would don my outfit, the double doors would swing open, and I would make my grand entrance. Like a celebrity at a Hollywood premiere, people – albeit very small people – would run toward me screaming my name and wanting my picture. Soon I would walk around the room expressing amazement at the gingerbread houses festooned with assorted candies while small children held my leg and older children confided I wasn’t fooling them.
My ultimate responsibility was to position myself in a large wing chair wedged between an elaborately-adorned 12-foot Christmas tree and a crackling fire to provide families with an Instagram-worthy setting for Christmas card photos. As each set of children was being arranged for photos, I would be interrogated. How did you get here? Where are your reindeer? How is Rudolph? Does he really have a red nose? At the same time, I would ask the children what they wanted from Santa for Christmas. I soon developed a ready arsenal of evasions and deflections worthy of a White House press secretary (Rudolph is great! Send your list to me at the North Pole and I’ll see what the elves can do!).
One year, a girl of no more than 5 or 6 came up to me and sat on my lap. I then went into my routine, asking her, after a few Ho-Ho-Ho’s, what she wanted from Santa for Christmas. She responded softly, I want you to bring my little sister back. Distracted by the holiday music and unsure I had heard her correctly, I repeated my question. She again said, I want you to bring my little sister back. I felt a jolt as I processed her question and turned to her parents for confirmation. When I saw her mother begin to sob and her father turn away, I realized a battalion of elves would not be able to give this child what she wanted for Christmas.
I don’t recall how I responded, other than knowing my effort at consolation was clumsy and inadequate. But, the child’s words were itself a gift, a reminder that the greatest gift we can give to our families cannot be wrapped and placed under a tree. Rather, it is our continuing presence, with love and companionship, that our families value most.
As we enter the holiday season amid a surging pandemic, and weigh the desire to gather with family and friends against the risks of infection, a child’s plea for the return of her sister serves as a poignant reminder of the need to exercise caution and restraint.
John P. McEntee, a partner at Farrell Fritz, is past president of the Nassau County Bar Association and is the chair of the Board of Trustees of Molloy College.