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The greatest gift of all this Christmas

Attorney John P. McEntee plays Santa Claus at

Attorney John P. McEntee plays Santa Claus at the Nassau County Bar Association's Annual Children's Holiday Party on Dec. 6, 2014. Credit: Courtesy of the Nassau County Bar Association

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.

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