Every year at our church we have a Christmas Eve service which is led by the children’s ministry. It is always endearing to see the children in their costumes and Christmas outfits, putting on a program for their parents. The children memorize lines, learn songs, and perform dances. The children are also involved in decorating the chapel and transforming it into the theme for the night.
One year, the theme was “Pajama Party,” and the children all wore matching flannel pajamas. Each child brought a blanket, and they sang songs about expectations and gifts. Another year, the theme was “Winter Wonderland,” and everything was covered in white to make it look like snow. My favorite year was when the children dressed up as lumberjacks and did a skit about cutting down Christmas trees.
For the parents, the best part was hearing their children and seeing the skits; they enjoyed the songs and seeing the kids get excited about their production. But the most exciting part for the children was at the end of the service when Santa Claus came into the chapel with a “sled” of presents. Each year, one of the church elders would enter with a beautiful, traditional Santa suit. He arrived with a red crushed-velvet bag, a white bushy beard, shiny black boots, and a joyful laugh. Each child would get a gift specifically picked out for them and given to them by Santa.
Each year the program went off without a hitch. Of course, there would always be some children who would forget their lines, who would get distracted or sit down during a song or, in the case of the younger kids, would run off the stage to find their parents. But these surprises only added to the beauty of the service. One year, however, we had a big issue: at the last minute we found out that Santa could not make it and he had the suit!
We were left scrambling! How are we supposed to find a Santa and a suit on Christmas Eve? And we only had an hour! We started searching our closets, calling our contacts, and racking our brains for how to keep the night special for these children. Luckily, minutes before the service, we were able to find a young adult in our congregation who had a Santa costume at home. He ran home to get it, and we started our service, unsure how it was going to turn out.
At the end of the service, when it was time for Santa to come in, the door opened and in walked our Substitute Santa. He did not have a white beard, or any beard for that matter, and he wasn’t wearing a hat. The pants stopped mid-shin, and he was wearing sneakers. The jacket was three-quarter sleeved, and he was carrying a black garbage bag full of toys. But boy oh boy, he sure was jolly!
He walked into the chapel as happy as can be. The parents were all laughing at the surprise of a young, black-haired Santa. He walked down the aisle with a huge smile and a hearty, “Ho! Ho! Ho!” The children were not let down, frustrated, or confused in the slightest. They were very excited to see someone they knew bringing them presents, and they were happy to receive their gifts.
Years after this event, I am still impressed by this young man’s willingness to step up and serve his community. Even though it was short notice and imperfect, he was willing to help make the evening special for these children.
One of the most important aspects of community involvement is showing up. Things aren’t always perfect or easy, but one’s presence makes the difference. The children and their parents will not remember what present they received at the service that year, but they will remember the young Santa who showed up for them.