I was a theatre major at the University of Vermont some years ago, and my family and I still live in the area. And every year at Christmastime, the theatre department puts on a show called “The Toys Take Over Christmas.” It’s a children’s show they have performed every year for almost 25 years.
When my boys were little, I always wanted to take them to the theater, my old stomping ground, for this production. Unfortunately, I couldn’t. My older son, TJ, has autism and sensory issues and had a difficult time in crowds. Putting him in the middle of a theater production with lights, music, bright colors and lots of other kids in the audience was a recipe for disaster. So nope, for us, the theater was out.
When TJ was 10, after eight years of working with therapists and teachers on his sensory issues, we thought he might be ready to give it a try. I had recently gotten back in touch with Alan, a costume shop supervisor and friend from my UVM days, who told me that the night before the weekend of performances they open the show up to the special needs community. The tickets are free, lights are partially up and there are signers there for the hearing-impaired. I was scared and excited all at once. The theater, and that theater in particular, was so much a part of me, and I wanted to share it with my family, but could TJ handle it? Alan encouraged me to give it a try, so he set aside for tickets for me, my husband, Sean, TJ and Peter, our younger son.
When we got to our seats, both boys were excited as they checked out the scenery. It was a toy store, and there were brightly wrapped boxes, two soldier actors, a rag doll actor looking asleep and tons of teddy bears. TJ looked at the program as we all got settled into our seats on the aisle just in case we had to make a quick sensory overload escape.
Suddenly TJ yelled, “Mom! Santa — as himself! It’s the real Santa!”
Now Alan had already told me that “Santa” was really my friend, Patrick, the theater department’s technical director. TJ had seen plenty of Santas before and knew they were really helpers of the big man, but he still believed 100 percent that Santa was real, and I didn’t want to burst his bubble.
Lo and behold, both boys loved the show. They laughed during dances and slapstick falls. They sat wide-eyed the entire time, taking in the story. And I noticed as the play went on, TJ sat closer and closer to the edge of his seat, waiting for Santa.
When Santa appeared, I saw a glimmer of my friend, Patrick, but he was head-to-toe immersed in Santa, from the beautiful costume to the rich warm voice. And TJ was hooked.
After the show, all the kids walk up the aisles to the upstairs lobby area, where all the cast members were handing our candy canes and posing for pictures, and the kids were waiting to sit in Santa’s lap.
TJ and Peter waited patiently, and when it was TJ’s turn to sit in Santa’s lap, he asked nervously, “Santa, am I on the naughty list?”
Santa chuckled as he looked at me with a small grin and looked back to TJ and said, “No, TJ, you’re not on the naughty list, but I think your mom might be!”
My jaw dropped as I laughed, and Patrick/Santa quickly said he was only joking and we were all on the nice list. Good cover, Patrick.
Anyway, from that moment on, Patrick was TJ’s Santa.
TJ is 15 now. His younger brother no longer believes in Santa, but TJ still does.
TJ and I went this past Friday to the play at UVM and to see our old friends, Alan and Santa, again. This time, TJ was the first one in Santa’s lap. He didn’t have time to mess around. He worries every year that he’s on the naughty list and wanted to be reassured that he isn’t. He also wanted to make sure Peter was on the nice list, even though he didn’t go to see Santa himself.
As TJ plopped down into Santa’s lap — all 6 feet of him. Sorry, Patrick! — Santa said, “TJ, you’ve grown about a foot this year!”
TJ asked if Peter was on the nice list (he was), asked if I was on the nice list (whew! I was, too!) and showed Santa his wish list. After Santa took a quick look, he turned to TJ and said, “TJ, I hear you’ve been walking home by yourself from school this year. That’s great!”
TJ looked stunned as a slow smile lit up his face. I started to tear up, realizing that Patrick had read a previous piece of mine describing the lengthy process of getting TJ ready to walk home from school by himself. It was a huge, proud accomplishment for him, and a big step for me in terms of letting go as TJ grows up.
As we drove home with TJ talking excitedly about Santa (“Mom, he’s my only friend who’s immortal!”), I felt so thankful for this experience and for these people. They welcome us, and the special needs community, every year. They give us the gift of a magical experience, and they keep the magic of Santa and Christmas alive for my 6-foot-tall young man.
So thank you so much, Patrick, Alan and the UVM Theatre for this gift you all give of yourselves each year to our special kids.
It is magic, indeed.