Brunswick, Ga. — When you retire, you can either find a chair and wait to die in front of the TV or offer yourself as a volunteer. In my case, the chair option was dismissed with a shrug by my lovely wife, Melinda, who is too busy with the urgent work of curing our world’s social ills to let me to sit around.
So, a couple of Saturdays ago, heavy with the spirit of Christmas doom, I passively stirred my hundredth cup of powdered hot chocolate at the Brunswick library for the annual Holiday Kinder-Carnival.
The Holiday Kinder-Carnival is meant to encourage parents and children to engage with local organizations that provide health care, early education and many services. Almost everyone who comes is poor.
To be clear, I am not qualified for this work. I struggled mightily with popcorn and hot chocolate distribution, looking like Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory. (Kids, ask a Boomer or, better yet, search YouTube.)
Then the church ladies arrived.
Until I moved to a small Southern town, I knew nothing of the formidable force that is church ladies. They were there to get it done and had zero time for my nonsense. One senior church lady sized me up suspiciously and began barking demands. “Where’s the ice? Are you stirring that chocolate enough? Where are the popcorn bags? That hot chocolate is too hot for the babies!”
They seized control with ferocious and merciless efficiency. They deployed a seamless product flow from popcorn to cookies to hot and cold beverages, chips and hot dogs. I asked if we shouldn’t put the hot dogs first and was stabbed by an icy stare.
To make the Holiday Kinder-Carnival fun, we positioned it as a Christmas festival, including a visit with Santa and of course, treats like hot chocolate, cookies and popcorn. (I popped maybe a hundred bags of Dollar Store microwave popcorn the night before.)
We expected maybe 300 people. Nearly 1,000 came. We quickly ran out of everything – food, treats, books. Everything. I poured my last hot chocolate with more than two hours to go.
As tensions rose, I was dispatched outside with the thankless task of heralding the unwelcome news that nothing was left. They had waited for hours. The line circled the block. Young people with babies on their backs and fronts. Grandparents sporting Christmas sweaters pushing little ones in strollers. Small kids wearing Rudolph ears.
“Everyone,” I shouted. “I’m really sorry. We are out of everything. I hate for you to wait in this line only to be disappointed.”
Most seemed undeterred. This clearly wasn’t the first time they heard lousy news. One of moms asked only: “Is Santa here?”
“Yes, Santa isn’t going anywhere.”
“Then we’ll wait.”
I had the same exchange maybe 25 times. “Is Santa here?”
As the line lengthened, some peeled off. But most stayed and waited patiently.
Inside, the line snaked around the gym-sized room. At the end, little kids escaped their moms to clamber onto Santa’s open knee. If his beard looked phony, they didn’t let on. He seemed as real as anything on their screens. They beamed and whispered something intended only for Santa. Babies grinned as he cradled them up close – sometimes in both arms.
I worried his red trousers would wear through.
But he stayed until the last child climbed down.
In that library it all melted away - all the posturing, mendacity and hatefulness. All the noise in Washington went quiet.
These folks don’t have much. But they have Santa. They believe.
Suddenly, it was Christmas. I wanted to buy someone a prize turkey – not the little prize turkey, the big one.
More than a century ago, Francis Pharcellus Church recognized this moment would come when he wrote a newspaper column to comfort a little girl whose friends told her Santa was fake news.
“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” Church wrote in the New York Sun. “He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. …The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.”
Get away from your TVs. Put down your smartphones. (DO read your newspapers!) Do something kind.
Yes, we need a little Christmas. Right this very minute. Need a little Christmas right now.
Bert Roughton Jr. is the retired senior managing editor and editorial director for the AJC.He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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