As the year 2020 draws to a close and Thanksgiving turkeys are a tasty memory whisked away by the smells of cinnamon, pine boughs, and peppermint, everywhere you look the signs of Christmas appear: festive decorations, tacky sweaters, and Grandma’s favorite recipes. Shoppers spend eager hours online and in stores finding just the right gifts for family and friends. It is a time of joyous preparation — an eager countdown to the fun of Christmas Day.
One guest’s arrival requires extra special thought and preparation. After all, his visit is brief, so the most must be made of it. He is kind enough to stop by during an extremely long road trip. You could say he travels in luxury because he has the entire flight to himself. A staunch environmentalist, his vehicle uses no gasoline or even electricity. He relies on an eight-reindeer-powered sleigh, built to his exact specifications and lit by a single, famous nose. The sleigh has a compact yet magically spacious cargo compartment that holds gifts for every child in the world, including those here in the Columbia area. Across the globe, this guest has many names, such as Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, Père Noël, Weihnachtsmann, Papa Noel, Babbo Natale, Święty Mikołaj, and Saint Nicholas. Here, he is predominantly known as Santa Claus, or just plain Santa.
A visit from Santa is an exciting event because he only comes once a year. Planning and expert advice are required to entertain properly this very important person. Fortunately, help is nearby. Just ask a child. A child of any age will do, but the real experts are likely under 4 feet tall and armed with vivid imaginations and boundless energy.
Many affairs of Christmas fall under the purview of the family’s oldest children, also known as the parents. Thankfully, they take care of major decorations, shopping, cooking, and the like. With all that on their parents’ to-do lists, it is up to the younger generation to take care of Santa. Preparation for Santa differs from home to home. However, experts agree on a few necessary items, such as Christmas lists, gingerbread houses, and nourishment sufficient to sustain Santa and his reindeer during their long night.
Christmas lists are of utmost importance. Eliza Barron, now 11, has known this fact since she was little. Way back in her 4s and 5s, Eliza saw the wisdom of writing a wish list for Santa. How else would his elves know what to make for her? She kindly made a list for her little sister as well. “Charlie couldn’t write her own list then, so Eliza made it for her,” says Ellen Barron, Eliza and Charlie’s mother. List making begins months in advance. Charlie, now 7, is a professional list maker like Eliza, and the two lend a hand to their youngest sister, 2-year-old Collins.
Ashley and Matt Williams’ resident Santa experts want the jolly old elf to feel right at home, so they make gingerbread houses to match the ones at the North Pole. Daughter Taylor, 10; son Rocco, 8; and daughter Brewer, 6, decorate their houses to their own individual taste. Soon after Thanksgiving, the project heralds the beginning of the Christmas season for the Williams family. Ashley buys gingerbread house kits, along with extra candy such as cinnamon dots, peppermint candies, miniature gumballs, and candy canes. Matt, the family’s self-appointed disc jockey, cranks up the Christmas tunes, and the fun begins.
“Taylor is precise with hers,” says Ashley. “She wants it to look just like the picture on the box. Rocco is more go-with-the flow. And the little one, she’s a hot mess.” Candy of every description ends up in mouths and on the floor. When the fun is over, gingerbread houses that Ashley describes as ranging “between the Biltmore and a Pinterest fail” become treasured family decorations to welcome Santa. That is not to say the houses remain intact between completion and Christmas morning. “Candy mysteriously goes missing off them as the children walk by during the holidays,” Ashley says with a grin. Santa, the ultimate candy fan, will understand.
Over at the Schanz house, 5-year-old Quinn finds joy in making cookies for Santa. “Quinn made a special plate for Santa’s cookies when she attended the ‘Santa and Me’ celebration at the Prisma Health Midlands Foundation’s Festival of Trees last year,” says Katie Schanz, Quinn’s mother, who is on the Prisma Health Children’s Hospital-Midlands Board. “The Mad Platter hosted a station at the event where she was able to decorate a plate with her handprint.” Quinn enjoys special cookie-baking time with Adam Schanz, her father, who rolls out homemade dough and helps her use cookie cutters. After baking, the real fun begins. “Quinn loves to decorate. She gets sprinkles everywhere,” says Katie with a laugh.
As Christmas Eve approaches, excitement mounts and gifts multiply under the tree. Children young and old sneak peeks at package labels and perhaps give the presents a shake or two. In both the Schanz and the Barron households, the children are allowed to open one gift on Christmas Eve, which is always Christmas pajamas. At the Schanz home, even the dog, Molly, gets pajamas. Quinn and Barret get a book as well. Eliza, Charlie, and Collins receive a movie to watch while wearing their new Christmas duds.
Festive pajamas are a fun part of Christmas for Taylor, Rocco, and Brewer, too. After a raucous family dinner, they settle down to watch National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. When the movie is over, the kids leave out cookies and milk for Santa and glitter-sprinkled oatmeal and carrots for the reindeer before heading off to dreamland. Quinn and Barret pile Santa’s cookies onto Quinn’s special plate and put it beside the fireplace, along with a glass of milk and a plate of carrots for his reindeer. Eliza, Charlie, and Collins leave their Christmas lists right beside Santa’s cookies. Sam Barron, their father, helps them put reindeer food outside, which they accentuate with glitter so the reindeer can find it even without the help of Rudolph’s famously red nose. “They love putting out reindeer food,” Ellen says of her girls. “They give them sunflower seeds and water.”
Around the world, little eyes watch in fascination as newscasters show Santa’s progress on the map. The homes of lucky children in east Asia and the Pacific islands are among Santa’s first stops. His magic sleigh hops from Australia, across the Indian Ocean and up through Asia, over to Africa, and then through Europe before starting the journey across the Atlantic Ocean to North America. Although they try to stay awake and listen for the sound of jingle bells and reindeer hooves, children finally fall asleep so Santa can perform his magic. While they dream of sugarplums, Santa slides down the chimney, fills their stockings, and leaves other gifts as well.
At the Schanz home, he samples a few of Quinn and Barret’s delicious cookies. He pats Molly on the head and makes his way back up the chimney. Santa’s eyes twinkle while he reads Eliza, Charlie, and Collins’ wish lists. He jots messages back to them before dashing away to the next home on his list. At the Williamses’, he admires Taylor, Rocco, and Brewer’s gingerbread homes and samples a gumdrop here and a cinnamon dot there. With a jolly “ho-ho-ho,” he slides a candy cane into his pocket for the road. At all three homes, Santa’s reindeer eat their fill. Glitter sparkles on their mouths as they bound up into the sky.
Christmas morning arrives at last! Even though no one caught a glimpse of him in person, Santa’s visit is on everyone’s mind. Children of every age cannot wait to see what Santa has left for them under the tree. Eliza, Charlie, and Collins obediently follow the family rule: everyone must be awake before exploring the spoils. The two older girls wait patiently for little Collins to wake up, then the three of them run into the living room. “It’s a mad house for 10 minutes, then it’s all over,” says Ellen. “Sam has a big family. Christmas morning, though, it is just us. It’s nice for just the five of us to be together for a little while.”
At the Williamses’, Taylor, Rocco, and Brewer wake up at the crack of dawn, run down the hallway, and burst through a floor-to-ceiling wrapping paper blockade into the living room to find their gifts. “I grew up in a huge Italian-Lebanese family,” says Matt. “Christmas is full throttle.” Inside the Schanz home, where Barret is still little, the atmosphere is calm in comparison, which suits the family fine. “Seeing the magic of Christmas through Quinn’s eyes has been one of the coolest things to experience as a parent,” says Katie.
After leaving treats in South Carolina homes, Santa moves on to other places across the globe. He reads Christmas lists, admires gingerbread houses, pets pajama-clad dogs, and eats more Christmas cookies than he will confess to if Mrs. Claus thinks to ask. His eight tiny reindeer pull the sleigh through the night; treats of sunflower seeds, oatmeal, and carrots make their job effortless. After a long, long trip, Santa and his reindeer team arrive back at the North Pole. Although they are tired, they are oh, so happy after spreading so much Christmas joy. They cannot wait to tell Mrs. Claus and the elves about all the sights they have seen. Among the tales they tell, surely they will mention the kind and thoughtful children of Columbia.