It occurs to me, as I chase seven-year-old Brittany up the University Center stairs for the second time, that giving coffee to a child already in the overexcited throes of pre-Christmas celebration may have been a mistake.
p. But then, most of the children at last Saturday’s Green and Gold Christmas need no caffeine to have the collective energy of a preschool class on pixie sticks. Fueled by seemingly depthless reservoirs of holiday spirit, no child appears capable of walking between the attractions and games that dominate the top floor of the UC, but only running.
p. Some 160 children aged 4 to 13 were here last Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. to enjoy this Christmas festival. Started in the 1980s by the Residence Hall Association, Green and Gold Christmas is now run by a student group that broke off in the 1990s to organize the annual party, thrown to give children from low-income families a blend of holiday treats and carnival-style fun under the watchful eyes of positive role models.
p. “Some of these kids don’t have the strongest older influences,” says senior Kathleen McDuff, co-chair of the event with junior Randi Lassiter. “It’s good for them to have someone to look up to.”
p. Some of the 40 to 50 student volunteers, dubbed “sponsors,” signed up months ago at the Activity Fair. Others responded to Vice President for Student Affairs Sam Sadler’s campus-wide e-mail. Still others are filling community service requirements for fraternities. Today, it is young children, not professors, from whom these students will take orders in a magical four-hour period of child-adult role reversal.
p. Initially, upon arriving at the event, my intentions were strictly journalistic. I was to be a passive viewer obtruding on the festivities only to ask a question or two before melting back into the shadows, scribbling furiously.
p. While waiting, I saw a little girl in a brown jacket blinking sadly at the pandemonium. “Where are the people we’re supposed to go with?” she asked plaintively. My resolve to remain detached weakened. I promised to find her and her brother a sponsor. But the scene was chaotic, with student volunteers just as bewildered as the children swamped the check-in table. “Okay,” I said. “I’m the person you’re supposed to go with.”
p. The children beamed and trailed me to the line for the inflatable maze that occupied most of Chesapeake. The girl, wearing a T-shirt that said “Allergic to School,” was 7-year-old Brittany; the boy, sporting a Sponge Bob Squarepants shirt and an earring in his left ear, was 8-year-old Christian. The room was filled with the clamor of overjoyed children racing through the maze and playing tag around its edges. Sophomore Melissa McReynolds began a literal day-long chase after her ward, Keyshaun, 7, whose shirt bore the ironic slogan “Handsome Little Devil.”
p. “These guys will never run out of energy,” one sponsor wryly observed as his six children dragged him into the maze.
p. Even the enormous, lion-shaped inflatable bounce pit in Tidewater seemed to only double the children’s energy rather than expend it. A few were stationary long enough to make a pit stop at the arts and crafts tables ringing the lion, where one girl finished a homemade Christmas card: a sheet of black paper with the red-glitter entreaty: “I love you mom. Can you get me a sell phone?”
p. Brittany and Christian doodled for a while, then discovered the ball-toss in the hallway, where kids lined up by the dozen to toss wads of taped paper through a Christmas tree cut-out — for prizes, of course. Brittany walked away from this game bedecked in a trio of temporary tattoos. As I applied the third — a sleigh — to her cheek, I asked if she’d like a real tattoo one day. “A dragon. No, a princess,” she amended.
p. It’s one of the subtle signs, like the sporadic use of “ain’t,” that these children come from a different background than the average student at the College. When I asked Christian if he plays sports, he told me he wants to play football, but that it’s too expensive. Their mother is unemployed and there is brief mention of an older brother the two rarely see. McDuff will later tell me that for many of these children, Green and Gold Christmas is the only Christmas. This was the case for one applicant this year, she recalled, whose mother wrote on her child’s permission slip that her husband recently lost his Social Security benefits, and it is unlikely they will be able to afford many presents for their children.
p. At lunchtime, as the children devoured hot dogs and potato chips, McDuff announced that Santa Claus had arrived. A hundred voices squealed, temporarily drowning out the jangling, early-’90s remix of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” blaring over the speakers. Standing in the long line outside Chesapeake, the children eyed the beardless Santa with suspicion. “He’s not real,” Brittany pouted. But she and Christian forgot questions of authenticity when they reached the front of the line, asking with near-reverence for a Game Boy and a mini-motorcycle, respectively.
p. The best I could offer them was bags of dollar store goodies, pre-assembled as handouts for all the children. Keyshaun, in line behind us with a breathless McReynolds, declared, “I hope I get me a pistol!” His wish came true — among the treats inside his and Christian’s “boy” bags of goodies were, indeed, plastic toy guns. Hundreds of suction-tipped darts immediately filled the air.
Brittany, in the meantime, tired quickly of the plastic jewelry in her bag and dug out a set of pink plastic nails, asking me to glue them over her real ones. Bottle of Elmer’s in hand, I was reminded of third-grade sleepover parties. As a token of our girly bonding, Brittany pressed the second package of nails — these ones bright blue — into my hands.
p. At this point, near 2 p.m., the initial thrill of the games and inflatables began to wear off. Even Keyshaun had settled into a game of catch. It’s about this time that I escorted the children on a semi-illicit field trip to The Daily Grind, where Brittany seized on my coffee to recharge her flagging energy.
p. Though tiring, the children seem reluctant to leave. “Can we come back tomorrow?” a boy wearing an inside-out white tee and sporting a rocking horse tattoo on his forehead asked.
p. Brittany popped a similar question: “Will you be here tomorrow?”
p. “I will,” I explained, “but you’re not coming back tomorrow.”
p. “Oh,” she said.
p. In the Chesapeake Rooms, we all bid a goodbye that was surprisingly anti-climactic for a group that had spent the day sharing the universal joy of toy guns and fake jewelry. Watching the maze deflate and janitors scrape hot dog pieces off the Chesapeake carpet, I decided that if bonding over plastic nails and craft glue isn’t what Christmas is all about, then I don’t know what is.