These last few years I have got a bit fed up with Santa Claus. There is just too many of him. It’s like he has been cloned and stuck in any corner of every shop you go into. The kids are getting sick of him too, big ones, boney ones, cross ones, raggedy bearded ones. They don’t know what to believe any more. Is he or isn’t he the real one? Of course they know all of them can’t be the real one, and dressing up in a Santa outfit doesn’t really cut it with modern kids. So I’ve been looking for an alternative Christmas experience and this year I found it at the Iosas Centre, Muff while following the star on the Iosas Centre Christmas trail.
When we climbed out of the car the lights of Derry city shone bright below us. My seven year old compared the sight to looking out of an aeroplane and my thirteen year old got a little upset. Children with autism need to be prepared beforehand of what to expect, but despite my attempts to prepare for the evening (I really didn’t know what to expect myself) it was clear he expected to end up somewhere more exciting than a carpark in the dark of night. However, when our guide began to lead us down the starlit path, Cian settled and he too became totally mesmerized by the peace of the night, the twinkling stars and the tiny houses in the garden naturally decorated with their own Christmas theme. Each house had its very own storyteller, dressed appropriately for the occasion, telling the Christian stories behind some of our favourite Christmas traditions – The Christmas tree, The Candy Cane, The First Christmas and more. I personally loved The Christmas Candle story. When the storyteller asked if we had any questions Cian called out ‘Sweeties.’ Everyone laughed and the children looked at the storyteller expectantly. After all, they had just come from the Candy Cane story where the candy cane basket proved to be a firm favourite.
When I spotted the familiar red and white coat in the next house I thought I had been duped for a minute. Santa had managed to stick himself into my ‘alternative’ but when we huddled tight together as he started to speak I was very much mistaken. The children were wide eyed with wonder at the story he told when he was a young boy and how he became known as Santa Claus. He didn’t disappoint either. He had a tiny basket behind his back too…full of gold coins, the edible kind, much to Cian’s and the children’s delight.
Walking the guided trail under starlight and in the silence of the natural bog garden created some very magical moments. The children ‘oohed’ and ‘aahed’ at the wooden reindeers and stars, and sat in amazement watching the very special performance that finished of the night which was nothing short of brilliant. Technically, the night didn’t end there. We were all invited back for hot drinks and festive singing while the children made cards and Christmas decorations. Even Cian rolled up his sleeves and decorated his own cookie and ate it too!
To all the staff and volunteers at the Iosas Celtic prayer garden, to the Y.A.R.D project, the Derry Search Youth group and the Calgach Singers, thank you for creating such a simple but spectacularly magical evening. A special note of thanks to our guide, Shauna, who took my little one’s hand and invited her to lead our group while I looked after Cian. It proved to be a very memorable night for all and definitely an experience to be repeated next year.
© Aileen McCallan