Santa’s sleigh ends the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade every year as a symbol that the Christmas season has officially begun. I think we can all safely agree that Santa Claus is the trademark of the holidays.
Well, Santa and that stupid elf on the shelf debauchery.
Anyway, getting a family picture with Santa is a pretty standard item on the agenda of Christmas-readiness. My Facebook has recently been covered with pictures of not only friends’ children seeing Santa, but also friends’ pets seeing Santa. Whether these pictures will actually make it onto the Christmas cards they were intended for (and whether or not those Christmas cards will actually get sent) is another thing entirely.
I never thought of visiting Santa as a privilege before. There are Santas all over the place! A quick Google search will give you various locations in your area that have a meet-and-greet with Santa. However, over the past couple weeks, I’ve realized how many children miss out on a visit with Santa because of their special needs.
For various reasons, some children just don’t have access to Santa. Some might not be able to handle the noise or the crowdedness of holiday-shopper crowded malls. Other kids might not be able to communicate with Santa because of hearing loss or impairment.
That’s where the Special Santa Event comes in.
A few years ago, a parent reached out to my church, asking for help to create something that would provide a way for children with special needs to have an opportunity to meet Santa. So, the Special Santa Event was born.
The Special Santa Event is a unique Christmas event created specifically for children with special needs so they can have the opportunity to meet Santa in a way that is accessible to them. The event is organized by appointment, so families come at their scheduled time, which helps create a quiet, relaxed atmosphere. Each family is able to have one-on-one time with Santa during their scheduled time. This allows the children to be in a stress-free environment. Before or after seeing Santa, the children can enjoy Christmas-themed activities and crafts.
In order to meet the needs of all children, there are four Santas in separate rooms, including a signing Santa from Iowa Hands and Voices, a nonprofit organization which supports families of children who are deaf or hard of hearing. This year, we were able to reach about 60 families, totaling an estimate of 250-300 people.
I’ve professionally worked with children for around eight years now (I mean, like I’m paid by school districts, so I guess I can say “professionally” . . .), and there is nothing better than seeing a child’s eyes light up.
I don’t normally work with special needs children. I don’t have the gift of being able to explain things at their level. I’m more drawn to the trouble kids, the ones that are constantly causing problems, but I absolutely melt when I catch a glimpse of wonder in their eyes. Wonder that someone cared enough to make something possible for them; wonder that someone believed them or sided with them on an issue for once.
Through my step-cousin (a special education teacher) and some associates and paraeducators, I’ve been able to have a better understanding of the hardships special needs children face because they aren’t “normal.” Being able to provide these kids with an opportunity to do something their peers do every year warms my heart. I may have only helped kids frost cookies, but seeing the joy on their faces as they dumped (and dumped and dumped) sprinkles over mounds of frosting was incredible. That glimpse of wonder that I see in my boys at work was there, just because they were able to do things that other children do all the time.
And you know what? Nothing about this was hard.
(To be fair, I wasn’t the one organizing it, so I can’t say the whole thing was easy.)
Checking people in and pointing them in the right direction is pretty simple.
Helping kids smear frosting on a cookie is an easy task.
Supervising ornament making doesn’t take any special skills.
But I think we look at things like this and make it hard. We’ve made reaching out to people different than us difficult. It shouldn’t be. But we’ve made it so.
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus gives us a pretty good example of reaching out to people different than us. He was the Son of God, yet He spent His time with people in the working class. He took time to care for the poor and the hungry as well as those in higher positions. Jesus didn’t discriminate who He helped, who He built relationships with. He just made Himself available to those who needed Him.
#plottwist – we all needed Him.
Jesus’s heart is pretty evident in Matthew 25:31-46:
“But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit upon his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered in his presence, and he will separate the people as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left.
Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’
Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing?When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?’
And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’
Then the King will turn to those on the left and say, ‘Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his demons. For I was hungry, and you didn’t feed me. I was thirsty, and you didn’t give me a drink. I was a stranger, and you didn’t invite me into your home. I was naked, and you didn’t give me clothing. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’
Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?’
And he will answer, ‘I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.’
And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous will go into eternal life.”
Jesus is sitting on the Mount of Olives with His disciples during His last days on earth, and this is part of the message He leaves them. (Pro Tip: Someone’s last words are always important, especially in literature. Pay attention to them.) He explains that those who don’t care for the least of these (HIs brothers and sisters) will not inherit eternal life because not caring for the least of these is equal to not caring for Him.
I’m not going to start some deep theological debate on who the least of these are. I do think it is safe to assume that Jesus is talking about people who society considers “less than.” I may be wrong, but God has always been way more interested in the motive of the heart than He is about the action, so I think He’ll have some grace towards me. Jesus also isn’t too keen on us trying to determine who we don’t have to serve (check out Luke 10:25-37), so I’d rather read these verses as encompassing more people than less.
I love being part of a church who sees the “least of these,” the people who society tends to look down on or forget. It’s so easy to see people with special needs or disabilities and look the other way. We don’t like to be uncomfortable, and when something is hard or we’re unsure of how to handle it, we tend to ignore it. It’s a blessing to be around people who strive to reach the community by showing love in a tangible way. In doing so, they help challenge me to see the needs of the “least of these” in my community and create ways to serve them.
And to be honest, that’s all Jesus did. He showed His love on the regular by simply serving those society (the religious leaders in particular) had forgotten. Then He showed His love for all mankind in the most tangible way possible – by sacrificing His life on a cross so that we could see the love He has for us.
I’ve been challenged a lot lately to see the “least of these” in my everyday life, and I want to pass that challenge on to you. Look around you. They’re all over the place if you search hard enough. It might be the kid sitting by herself in the dining center; it might be the single mom volunteering in your child’s classroom.
Who do you interact with that society might have forgotten?
Here are a couple of links for more information: