“Santa, I would love for you to meet my son. He LOVES you, but he gets scared when other people are around,” I said with the same hopeful smile that I’d smiled many times in the past.
My husband was moving Cristian to a secluded spot and from across the room, we gave each other an all too familiar look that encompassed years’ worth of Santa struggles with our son, who has autism.
Cristian loves Santa. But the lights, the sounds, the people — it can all be too much for him. Sensory overload is so very real and it can make the most joyous of times a nightmare for even the strongest of believers. As his parents, it’s our job to adapt and give him the same magical moments other children get to have — especially as he’s reaching the age where Santa loses his spark.
As Santa sauntered over to the vending machines where Cristian was hiding, he asked me what his name was and I knew we were in good hands. For as many times as we’ve encountered caring Santas before, not one had ever asked for our son’s name. It was such a simple gesture that set me at ease. He greeted Cristian who immediately enveloped him in a hug and the pair posed for a few pictures.
In the past, that would have been the end of our Santa escapade for the year. My husband and I would have high-fived while our kiddo would have sighed in relief that he got to see his jolly and bearded hero for another year. But this year was so very different.
Santa asked a vendor to grab a chair for him and set it in front of a backdrop set up for different characters. He held my son’s hand and invited him to sit on his lap as he sat down. Cristian, no longer afraid and relishing in the moment, sat down as Santa asked for a few moments alone with our son.
My husband and I walked away in awe that this costumed stranger would go so far to help people he’d met moments ago. We peeked around the corner numerous times thinking that this must be a dream. We smiled at each other with the biggest of grins and hugged each other tight.
Our boy was smiling and laughing with Santa.
We made everyone look over at the moment because it was such a huge victory for us. Each time we thought the pair was done, he’d hold Cristian a little tighter and our boy would smile a little greater.
When their time was up, Santa walked towards us and shook our hands. We told him how thankful we were for him and he said it was his pleasure and that we had a good boy. It looked like he wanted to say something else, but Cristian ran up to us so excited that Santa snuck away so we could have a family moment.
The rest of the event, it seemed like Cristian was walking on air. You couldn’t wipe the smile off his face and it made my heart swell.
Before we left, there was no line to see Santa which meant that my husband and I could get our pictures taken with the man of the hour. We posed for a picture or two and when I went to get up and he grabbed my hand with his gloved hand and looked at me with utmost sincerity.
“You are raising a sweet boy. We talked about toys at first but then he told me he was bullied. He warmed up to me quickly, you know? It hasn’t happened for a while but he’s not over it and it still bothers him. He’s trying his hardest at school and made sure I knew that. I told him I’d give him super strength to help him avoid bullies and super knowledge to help him in school. But a super heart? He’s already got one of those — I don’t need to help him with that. I told him that I’d tell you guys and not to be mad at me, but keep an eye on him. Don’t let bullies get to that beautiful soul of his.”
This kind man, a stranger to us all, got more out of my son in ten minutes than my husband and I (or even his therapist) could in over a year. We were very aware of the bullying, both mental and physical, that he’d dealt with at his previous school. But we had no clue of the lasting damage that it had done to our child.
It took a little bit of Santa’s magic to get to the bottom of it all.
We had an open and honest dialogue on the way home — one of the best conversations that we’ve had as a family. We talked about what happened at his previous school, why it was bad and why the environment he is in now is so much better. We talked about why bullying was wrong and how it made him feel. We told him that there will always be negative people in life and to never let a bad day get the best of him. We told him to focus on the friends he does have and all of the good things in his life. We threw some more clichés at him about how the past is the past and although it’s alright to live in it it’s not okay to permanently live there because that’s not living at all.
At the end of it all, Cristian exclaimed again that he wished we would have won the large teddy bear that was being raffled off so that he could have given it to the hospital. It made me realize that regardless of if he believes in Santa the human for another year or not, that he’ll always have the true spirit of the season inside of him.