Have you ever stopped to take in the joy on a child’s face at Christmastime? Seeing the wonder in her eyes is priceless. Have you ever looked at her parents when they’re watching her take in the moment? Sometimes you’re witnessing the moment of a lifetime and may not know it.
A number of years ago, I worked for Santa; his beard and glasses were real. Technically I guess you could say I worked with Santa. I spent six weeks taking pictures of him with children (and adults) at the mall. I was disappointed when I was given a shirt with a photography company’s name on it to wear. I was really hoping for an elf costume, complete with pointy shoes and candy cane striped tights. Most days were enjoyable. Santa had a comfy chair and beautifully wrapped red and green boxes next to him. He even had a backdrop of a beautifully decorated family room and fluffy “snow” everywhere. You could hear Christmas music, smell fresh pretzels baking at the shop a few spots away, and see people enjoying their shopping. The kids were so excited to see Santa. Of course, all that holiday cheer also came with tired feet, a sore back, and the stress of keeping a long line of excited children entertained and happy. It also included a digital camera, computer, and printer that seemed to hate me. It was always in the middle of a rush when the computer froze or the printer ran out of paper. I admit, some days my Christmas spirit needed a boost, usually it came in the form of a candy cane (or 3) and some freshly baked soft cinnamon pretzel sticks.
There is one moment I will never forget. It was a late afternoon weekday, the time of day when it was usually slow. I noticed a day walking down the main hall ahead of his wife and daughter. He looked nervous, then stopped to talk. He explained to me his daughter Noel* was coming. (Her name has been changed for privacy reasons.) Noel was 10 years old and was obsessed with Santa. This sweet child with dark curly hair loved Santa so much that her parents had to keep out some Christmas decorations all year long. Noel also had cerebral palsy. It was difficult for her to control her body movements, and it was hard for her to communicate, even with her parents. As she got closer her eyes lit up, and she laughed as she saw Santa. She had a red bow in her hair and was wearing a Christmas sweater. Her dad nervously explained there was one issue. She loved Santa, but was afraid to be close to him in person. She was 10 years old, and they didn’t have a single picture of her with him. Silently praying, I asked God to help us find a way for Noel to get her picture. I didn’t know how, but I knew God was going to come through. I did my best to assure Noel’s dad we would make this happen.
There was one excited little boy who came to see Santa and we thought it might help if Noel saw him with Santa. She was so excited to hear him tell that little boy “Merry Christmas,” but the moment Santa said “Ho, ho, ho” to Noel, she wanted to go, go, go! We tried the usual anxiety reducers. Her dad sat with Santa, then her mom, both times she cried. We realized she was calmer if Santa was completely still and quiet. She was also less anxious if her parents were standing by Santa, just not sitting in his lap. I was asking God for creativity and supernatural calm. Then, those boxes wrapped like presents gave me an idea. If I could sit on one, certainly her tiny frame would fit. I carefully place a box in front of Santa, and her mom sat on it. Noel watched, but wasn’t afraid. We found the perfect angle for the camera to make it look like she was very close to Santa in the photograph, but she was at a distance.
Her mom stood just behind Santa as he did his best to not move, and her dad slowly walked with her. She backed away a few times, but when she realized we wanted her to sit on a box wrapped like a present, that seemed okay. Her dad helped me to get a big smile from her, and at the last minute her mom bent down so she wouldn’t be seen in the photo. Everyone praised Noel for how well she did, and I was staring at the monitor waiting for the photo.
There it was, the photo of a lifetime.
Her dad started to tear up as he told Noel and her mom to come over. Noel jumped up and down when she saw herself with Santa on that computer screen. She kept looking at the screen and back to Santa. He reached down into his bag, and without saying a word, pulled out a candy cane and held it out. With new found confidence, Noel let her mom walk with her so she could take the candy cane herself from Santa’s hand. That moment was A Jesus Moment for all of us. Santa was just a fun, make believe part of Christmas, but God gave a real gift to that family.
In the midst of the chaos and joy we knew to pause and save this memory just like Mary did on that first Christmas:
But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. Luke 2:19 (NIV)
Her parents and I had tears in our eyes as those photos printed. They began to look at all the little things for sale on the table. Then Noel’s eyes fixated on a snow globe. The base was a beautiful Christmas scene, but it had a space where you could put a picture inside and watch the snow fall around it. Her dad asked her if she wanted it. Since she wouldn’t let go, we assumed the answer was yes. I asked her if I could see it for just a minute. She was skeptical, but let me hold it when she saw I had a photo of her and Santa in my hand. Her eyes were brighter than any tree when she saw HER picture with Santa inside that snow globe. With smiles and happy tears, they finally convinced Noel to let us put the snow globe in a box so it wouldn’t break on the way home. They asked if Santa could wish her “Merry Christmas.” She said “yes.” This time he had an extra cheery “Merry Christmas” just for her, and she squealed with delight when he said “ho, ho, ho!” Santa and I could hear her laughing as they made the way to their car.
We were still smiling when we saw her dad running back to us about ten minutes later. I was worried the snow globe had broken. Out of breath, he asked if I had deleted the pictures on the computer yet. I told him I hadn’t, and he fell on the counter with relief. He said when they got to the car they realized these may be the only photos they ever got of Noel with Santa, and they wanted as many prints as they could. (This elf might be tearing up as she types this.) It wasn’t about Santa, it was about a little girl’s dream coming true and being able to remember it forever. He left with a grin, and tears in his eyes.
The rest of that season at the mall was filled with the usual mix of all kinds of mayhem and moments to remember, but none compared to the moment with Noel. I’m still disappointed I never got to see Rudolph, but I was told it was forbidden.
I hated to see that Christmas season end, but in February I got another Christmas surprise. It was a letter from Noel’s dad. It took some time because he sent it to the mall, the mall forwarded it the photography company who then sent it to me. Her dad said in the letter they wanted to apologize for never getting my name. I read with tears rolling down my cheeks as he talked about that day and all of Christmas. Of course, the snow globe was a permanent fixture in Noel’s room. That year, when people came over for Christmas, Noel didn’t show them Santa decorations, she showed them the pictures of her with Santa. By letting me gave a glimpse into their home and hearts, he gave me an amazing gift.Noel would be in her 20’s now, and I think of her every Christmas even though I’ve never seen her again.
Never take for granted how much a small act of kindness can mean to someone. 1 John 3:18 is a perfect reminder.
“Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.”
This year, what can you do that makes a difference? Can you be the one to give a family like Noel’s a special memory? Maybe you can be the one to let an elf at the mall know her work isn’t forgotten. A phone call or asking in to speak with a manager about something good someone did, is a priceless gift. Those moments are ones that will last long after the lights are taken down and the candy canes are gone. They can last a lifetime.
Thank you for reading. I appreciate you so much. Have you ever been a part of a special Christmas memory, either on the giving or receiving end? Please share it on the blog. Those stories are fun, and add extra sparkle to every season