What little child doesn’t scream, cry, or freeze up when introduced to Santa for the first time? Maybe there are some littles who reach exuberantly for the man with the white beard and round belly (“that shook, when he laugh’d, like a bowlful of jelly” – sorry, couldn’t resist). I’ve seen toddlers sprint toward the velvety, high-backed chair surrounded by Christmas trees, elves, and presents, only to halt suddenly and scream when a face full of fake white hair and white gloved hands start coming toward them. (Honestly, at their eye level, how is that site not frightening?) For children with autism, we’re talking frightening and then some. It can be a gigantic jolt to the sensory system.
Start with the mall. A cacaphony of a hundred voices echoing and bouncing through the wings and corridors. Unhappy babies crying or impatient toddlers shrieking. Harsh lights glimmering and glinting. Pocorn-wafflecone-cinnamonbun scents assaulting the sinuses. Don’t forget the persistent Hollister® cologne cloud eminating from that store and floating into every nose around. Shoppers’ bags sway and crinkle as people walk by. And some of those people brush by a little too close for comfort. Add the holiday season to that, with it’s shiny decor everywhere and ultra-stocked racks and shelves. By the time a child with autism gets through all of that and arrives at Santa’s sturdy knee, s/he is dee—oh—en—eee DONE.
As most moms of little ones are inclined to do at Christmas, I dressed my then-little boy, Zach, in something festive and headed to a nearby mall for a visit (and photo) with Santa Claus. I remember the scene well. Center atrium. Tall (fake) evergreens. Twinkling lights. Quilted banners displaying candy canes and holly. A snaking path bordered by silver stanchions and red velvet ropes. And, of course, elves.
We waited a long time for our turn. We could hear the ho ho hos but could not yet see St. Nick. In the Cheerios-crusted, navy and yellow plaid stroller, Zach was getting antsy. This was the time when mobile phones did not have video capability (oh, the horror) so one of my meltdown prevention techniques included positioning a Sony Camcorder® on the tray of the stroller which played recorded-from-TV episodes of Thomas the Tank Engine. I thought it was pretty high tech back then! To quell a meltdown, I leaned over and fast-forwarded to Zach’s favorite scene; Percy getting covered in chocolate.
By the time we stood in front of the jolly old elf, Zach was about done. The child ahead of us was evidently reciting a very long wishlist. I whooofed my bangs from my forehead and unbuckled Zach. As I hoisted him, he reached down for the Camcorder and almost tumbled head-first onto fake cobblestone.
“Ho, ho, ho! Who do we have here! Come here, young man!” boomed the Santa actor.
I was new to autism and had all the newbie optimism that said if I wanted something to go well, it would go well. I did not “prep” anyone about anything. That became abundantly clear when Santa started asking little Zachary what he wanted for Christmas, and Zach, staring at the shimmering banner on a pole, said nothing. Santa chuckled and called him shy. In the next second, Zach reached out for the Camcorder again, slid off Santa’s lap, and that was the end of that. There was no returning to the lap, and the elf-helper escorted us to the exit. No magic, no photo, no nothin.’
That scene repeated itself in various places the following year, the year after that. Given the lack of enthusiasm, the mall meltdowns, and holiday employees who didn’t get it, we steered clear of Kris Kringle and company and never accumulated those glossy 8 by 10 holiday pictures in the cardboard frame. I wasn’t upset by that; it was actually one less thing to deal with during a busy and stressful month. (OK, maybe I was slightly sad; I wanted at least one magical moment!) Once, I pre-informed an elf that with autism and apraxia, there was no verbal language. This helped the experience go somewhat better, but that only worked with no crowds and if said elf was willing to step aside for a minute to get a crash course in autism. Elves are busy, you know.
At some point, when Zach was an older child, there were plennnnty of moms finding themselves in the same boat (or sleigh) and somewhere, someone got the bright idea of doing sensory-aware Santa visits for children who had special needs. While that was helpful and inclusive, our one visit with sensory-aware Santa somehow lacked magic and warmth. It was fast-paced, and we were still within the confines of a boisterous shopping mall. What it boiled down to was nice mall employees trying to keep the area a bit quieter.
Fast-forward 13 years. We simply lost interest in seeking Santa. To spot him out and about somewhere was fun (for about 30 seconds). We’d see him in an occasional parade, on TV, and, once, in a hospital. The glimpses had about as much festivity as a fallen fruitcake.
Around Halloween, people at my husband’s office were speaking about an old creepy castle that had Halloween and Christmas events open to the public. Interested, my husband read that it had been a boys home in the 1800s; juvenile troublemakers were sent there for rehabilitative work programs. The building and grounds had fallen into disrepair through the ages, but eventually it was marked for preservation when a foundation took ownership in 2014. Preston Castle, known for its imposing façade, stands out against a verdant hillside dotted with gnarly oaks. The Victorian turrets, towers, and dark red brick lend a gothic feel to the place.
The coworkers could get tickets to the Halloween Haunt…did we want to go? Haunted houses are akin to the mall in terms of sensory overload. Maybe worse. Quite frankly, Zach would not be the only one melting down. They’d find me crouched in a corner crying and would have to escort me out through a back door. No thank you. In reading about the Haunt, however, we discovered Preston’s Winter Craft Fair. That sounded much more appealing.
It was a Saturday afternoon in early December. Mother Nature seemed to choreograph the weather for our trip to the Victorian-somber Preston Castle that day: thick coal-colored clouds spilling a soaking rain with bone-chilling temperatures and occasional drifts of ghostly fog. I almost expected to see Cathy running toward Heathcliff in the parking lot.
Drifting inside among other Christmas tree lovers and craft connoisseurs, we paid the admission and entered the chilly corridor of the main building. I immediately noticed cracks in walls and areas in desperate need of fresh paint. It had the scent of a stuffy attic filled with the relics of past generations.
Zach stayed by my side, and I wound my fingers around his. I was not going to lose him in a soggy crowd in a building used for a haunted house. (They sure didn’t need decorations to turn it so). I had visions of leaning against a tall bookshelf only to have it spin and dump us in a dungeon filled with ghastly laboratory equipment and monsters. (Anyone remember Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein?)
I noticed his gentle tug on my hand and decided to follow his lead. A gentle pull of the hand is communication, is it not? As I turned, my husband (talking with someone he knew and bumped into) caught my eye and waved me toward another room. That’s exactly where Zach was headed. Through the throng, I noticed twinkling lights and a star-topped tree – a very large one. It glowed almost gold in a corner of what must have been a sitting parlor way back when, or, a main office for Preston Castle. I saw some velvety ropes and stanchions, which I tracked with my eyes until I gazed upon two cranberry-red hats with gold scrolling around the rim. There stood (not seated on thrones) Santa and Mrs. Claus. The pair looked amazingly authentic – Santa true to the image I hold in my mind’s eye of what Pére Noël should be (not that Coca-Cola Company mascot/Santa Claus created by Haddon Sundblom).
“Zach, do you want to meet Santa?” my husband asked. Heck, I wanted to meet this Santa! If Zach didn’t want to, I was ready to wait on line by myself! To my amazement, Zach kept tugging my right hand and inching toward Santa. He nodded yes to my husband. So we entered the line.
WOW! I had flashbacks to Shopping Mall Santa but dismissed them. This didn’t feel like that. We weren’t wearing festive take-a-photo-with-Santa outfits, and we were, in fact, pretty damp from darting through the downpour. But I did not care. Zach wanted to meet him, and this was a first, so we stood in line and inched our way toward the glowing tree. They could have used some portable heaters in there.
As we waited, we created buttons on his communication device which spoke Hi Santa and Hi Mrs. Claus. I showed him where to find them and told him when he got up there, he could use them to speak with Santa. He nodded.
Mrs. Claus, standing close to the line, saw us and gave me a knowing smile. I love the knowing smile. I have come to recognize it and appreciate it fully. I have also been the giver of the knowing smile. Receiving it and giving it feel like a sip of sunshine.
“Who do we have here?” Santa inquired with gentleness. He had a definite twinkle in his eye. His beard was real. I’d never seen a Santa like that before. He slowly extended his gloved hand, and Zach shook it and giggled. My husband and I stood off to the side after coaxing Zach closer to Santa. He gave a very subtle tap to his ears and looked at me inquisitively. I took that to mean can he hear me? And I nodded and mouthed yes.
My name is Zach, spoke the selected button. Mr. and Mrs. Claus’ faces lit up. There was complete communication going on with their eyes, my eyes, and Zach’s device. Honestly though, nothing really needed to be communicated when you looked at the dimples on Zach’s cheeks. And his blue eyes were twinkling just like the tree’s lights.
“Zach, my friend, I am happy to see you. I sure do like saying hello to you,” he paused while Zach steadied his finger over a button. His blue eyes glanced at me.
“Go ahead, Zach, you can tell him,” I whispered.
Hi Santa. Hi Mrs. Claus.
The couple smiled and graciously acknowledged this with such exuberance and warmth. The twinkling lights in front of me became quite blurry for a second… Then, thoughtfully, Santa asked for permission to put his arm around Zach. The two shared such a joyful moment. Make that three.
“Is there something you’d like for Christmas, Zach? You can let me know…”
Zach giggled and hovered over another button. From where I stood, I could not see the button. But I heard it once he tapped it.
Santa looked delighted. “You like bumblebees, do you?” He laughed (without shaking like jelly) and agreed with Zach that bumblebees were very good.
“I’ll see what I can do about bumblebees,” said Santa. Although the line was long behind us, not a single person groused, and the Clauses did not hasten Zach nor scoot us away. I soaked in every second of this encounter.
Zach then hovered over another button. I wondered what he was going to say now…I like bacon? I need to use the bathroom?
What do ghosts eat for dinner? Santa, cool as a cucumber, smiled and said “I don’t know…what do ghosts eat for dinner?”
We laughed, Santa chuckled, Mrs. Claus giggled, and I’m pretty sure the front half of the line laughed too. Zach was smiling. It was perfect.
When Santa asked if there was anything else Zach wanted to tell him, Zach nodded no and skipped toward me. Mrs. Claus called out, “Do you all want a family picture?” Her voice sounded fresh out of a Rankin-Bass Christmas special. I was just so thrilled in the moment that I didn’t think about doing that, but I was so grateful she did. There was no fee for a photo; though, had there been, I would have gladly paid it. That single photo would have topped any previous (and pricey) mall photo, had we any.
Twenty years in the making…this memory. I felt like we waited two decades for this magical moment. Zach wanted to meet Santa Claus. I believe he knew intuitively that this Santa was safe. Gentle. Good. I witnessed the charisma of St. Nicholas surrounding this person and filling the room with a palpable warmth. He was a knowing Santa whose love and kindness were sprinkled like snow flurries upon this happy encounter.
As we walked away, I glanced back at St. Nick and communicated another message of my gratitude. He got it, and winked.
As we wound our way through the spooky and damp grounds of the Castle to see the craft fair, my heart was warm. Wet coat, soggy socks, didn’t matter. Though craft booths abounded, nothing I saw held a candle to the merry meeting in the parlor. That moment in time was spun by Christmas magic, knitted into something warm and cozy, and painted on a canvas in my mind.
Despite the gloom lingering over a rocky Ione hillside that Saturday, our spirits were bright as we drove off. Little pellets of hail tapped the windshield. The glass fogged up a bit. In the distance, past the craggy slope barely holding its heavy, crooked trees, a slice of rainbow appeared. We were within a Victorian snow globe, so it seemed. In the middle of it, if you held it close to your face and peered in, you’d see three glowing lights through the dancing white fluff. One, the heart of Santa giving a young fellow with autism a magical moment. Two, the heart of the young man being accepted, acknowledged, and respected for who he is. And three, the heart of a mother feeling immense gratitude for unexpected wonders.
We spoke not a word, but drove home in such glee,
How would Santa wrap up a wee bumblebee?
Putting our cares aside for the day,
Our car felt to us like a marvelous sleigh.
Home we arrived, and sprang through the door,
My feet they did seem to not touch the floor.
The present was seeing Zach with a smile,
The joy in my heart would last me a while.
To those who may question if Santa is true,
I say, yes he is! Happy Christmas to you!
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