Bad Santa, Good Santa


We spend MaryEllen’s December birthdays at the local mall, shopping, her most favorite thing to do. She loves the feeling of all the new outfits draped over her and our enthusiastic descriptions of each one.

“MaryEllen, this one has love written all over it! You will look great in it!” IMG_4001 (1)

“MaryEllen, feel these pajamas! Wow, they are so soft, aren’t they?” IMG_4005

“MaryEllen, all the girls are wearing these! They’re perfect!”

IMG_4006This is her favorite day of the year, and I try to make every birthday full of life and fun, especially since every birthday is essentially an extra one. That year, she turned 27. That was 25 extra birthday celebrations for us, according to what we were told to expect when she was a baby.

So, it was only fitting that we would end the day with a visit to Santa. Even at 27, MaryEllen had a childlike love for Santa Claus. As soon as I mentioned Santa, she was giddy in her wheelchair, her face lighting up like a Christmas tree.

Lucky for us, there were no lines and we would quickly be at Santa’s side in no time. We fed off each other’s excitement. “Almost there, MaryEllen!” as we wound through the empty queue.

Having done this for many years, I knew that the camera system at the mall would not accommodate us. MaryEllen and Kevin have poor head control and to take a photo, I have to take it from above. The mall camera takes photos at Santa’s eye level. For us, that would result in awesome pictures of the kids’ tonsils.

As we entered the photo area, I asked Santa if I could take pictures with my phone, explaining that the mall camera wouldn’t be able to take a good photo. “You can take a picture of the scene,” Santa said, as he rushed by MaryEllen and Kevin, not even acknowledging their existence. Shocked and  still not quite understanding what had just happened, I snapped a photo of the kids minus Santa. IMG_4002

I persisted though, and Santa did go back to his chair for a photo.IMG_4003

It was evident that he was uncomfortable. There wasn’t a “Ho, Ho, Ho,” or a “Merry Christmas.” It was as if the kids didn’t exist. We left, saddened by our visit, but determined to end MaryEllen’s birthday shopping spree on a good note.

Upon returning home and having time to contemplate what had happened, I decided to call Santa headquarters. I didn’t want this to happen to other families. After many messages left, and no return calls, I posted our story online. It quickly went viral and I was contacted by news outlets. We were assured things like this never happen and certainly would never happen again.

And this is how the Christmas spirit was born that year. We were contacted by two teachers whose students wanted MaryEllen and Kevin to be their guests at their high school’s Festival of Trees. Santa would be there and he wanted a photo session with my kids! We couldn’t wait to meet the teens who showed such compassion. The day arrived and we were greeted at the school by a serenading choir leading us down the hall to a waiting Santa Claus, the real Santa Claus! Our hearts were full and my tears were flowing. This group of teens, who didn’t even know us, adopted MaryEllen and Kevin and showed them love and acceptance like we had never seen before.


This is how it should be, mall Santa.


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