Late in the afternoon on a chilly December day, a big man with a deep voice holds out his arms as lithesome young helpers pull a bright red jacket around his ample middle, fastening the buttons and the big shiny black belt. They help him pull on tall black boots, apply a white beard and set a floppy red-and-white cap on his head.
Practicing booming ho-ho-hos, Luther Smith is transformed from dean of students into Santa Claus. And he’s ready to take on the world—or at least the 100 or so children who anxiously await his arrival as part of A Xavier Christmas, a student-run event that has grown from a tree-lighting ceremony into an outreach program that brings underprivileged children to the University to celebrate the holiday.
Smith patiently listens as wide-eyed children sit on his lap and talk of their wishes. “I ask them if they’ve been good during the year,” he says. “I’ll say, ‘Tell me a time you were especially good,’ and they talk about doing well in school or helping their parents.”
“It’s important to show youngsters what college is,” says Allyson Berlon, a senior and co-chair of the event. “And, it’s important to show the community that Xavier cares and we’re interested in getting involved with the children in the area around Xavier.”
For the event, some 200 underprivileged kindergarten, first-grade and second-grade students from eight nearby elementary schools are brought to campus for a four-hour holiday celebration. Each child partners with a “Xavier buddy” and partakes in myriad events. They play holiday musical chairs and participate in crafts activities, making bags and decorating them with seasonal images. The children eat pizza at the Cintas Center, receive colorful scarves that Xavier students cut out of fleece and savor hot chocolate and cookies.
As the gospel choir sings holiday favorites, University President Michael J. Graham, S.J., and Santa Claus pull a big master switch to light the campus Christmas tree. The children have their photographs taken with Santa, and a few days after the event, their Xavier buddies send Christmas cards and photos of the kids.
The event, which is sponsored by the Student Government Association, is only three years old, but it has been expanded each year and figures to prosper as an annual tradition. “I love to see it continue,” says Berlon. “It started off as such a small event with just a tree-lighting ceremony. To see us grow it every year is a neat thing to see happen.”
The children aren’t the only ones to get a kick out of the event. “The Xavier buddies love it,” says Berlon. “They say it makes them feel like a kid again, being able to interact with these children. I think that by the time students get to the college level they often forget about how special Christmastime can be. And, of course, the children love it. And their teachers are impressed that things run so smoothly.”
Kimberlie Goldsberry, executive director of student involvement, says the event also fits perfectly with the University’s mission of helping others. “We want to provide a meaningful Christmas experience for the children,” she says. “We also want to stimulate a joint volunteer effort of Xavier students and the various offices of the University. But it’s mostly for the children. The event creates an opportunity for the children to experience Christmas with some college students and to get comfortable being on a college campus.”
That also resonates with Santa, uh, Smith, even though having 200 kids plop down on your lap can take its toll on the knees.
“I want them to know each child matters, so I try to focus on that child during that 30 seconds,” he says. “It’s not about the season at that moment, it’s about them. I believe we are everything we have been, and all these experiences help to shape and form us as people. Some of these children are very disadvantaged, and these are moments we allow them the experience of joy that may have an impact on how they turn out as adults.”